Earplugs

The Various Types of Earplugs and Their Possible Uses



Some items tend to have comic associations and among those that are often seen as a source of amusement are earplugs. These simple, commonplace devices are frequently encountered in cartoons depicting a woman, unable to enjoy a good night’s sleep because of her husband’s excessively loud snoring, or a man, seeking to escape from his spouses’ incessant nagging while attempting to enjoy a newspaper. In practice, however, they have a number of extremely useful applications of which one has become a matter of international concern.

Ear infections are common among swimmers, especially those who make use of public pools or rivers. Left untreated or where they have a tendency to recur, these can become chronic, leading to permanent hearing loss, as can an infection caused by an antibiotic-resistant strain. However, the simple act of inserting a pair of well-fitting earplugs can provide an effective means with which to protect swimmers from the risk of an ear infection and its possible long-term consequences.

Joking aside, those who have difficulty sleeping can often attribute their problem to a noisy environment. While, in fact, the source may actually be the snores of a spouse, in urban areas it may be due to passing traffic. However, some individuals are simply extra sensitive to noise and may find that even the faintest creak of a floorboard or the patter of rain on a window pane is sufficient to keep them awake. Continued loss of sleep can lead to depression and physical ill health but, once again, the simple solution for these insomniacs is to purchase a pair of cheap earplugs from the local pharmacy. A mouldable silicone or wax product should suffice, but even a foam pair should be sufficient, as the noise levels typically responsible for sleep loss are unlikely to be excessive.

Although the wax and silicone products can be easily moulded to fit snuggly into any ear, the result is a seal that tends to exclude all sounds, including those of a normal conversation. In order for the wearer to communicate effectively, they must, therefore, be removed. While this might not be a major obstacle for the swimmers and the light sleepers, there are other circumstances in which it might be very ill-advised to remove one’s earplugs.

Worldwide, the single most common cause of hearing loss is prolonged and repeated exposure to excessively loud noise. A hazard faced daily by millions of workers throughout the globe, NIHL or noise-induced hearing loss is also the most prevalent form of industrial injury and one that now attracts billions of dollars in compensation payments every year. Despite its prevalence, it is an injury that can be prevented with just a few simple precautions. The first of these should be to ensure that those who are required to work in a dangerously noisy environment are fully acquainted with the nature of NIHL and the serious risk to their auditory health, should they fail to wear the protective earplugs supplied.

Noise is measured in decibels and differs from what we perceive as volume. The difference is particularly relevant because noise is measured on a logarithmic scale in which each increase of 10 dB corresponds roughly to a doubling of the volume. Two people standing about a metre apart can still converse normally when background noise is at 70 dB, At 90 dB, they will need to raise their voices, and by 100 dB, they will need to shout. Beyond 100 dB, they will no longer be able to communicate. At 100 dB, it takes just three minutes to incur hearing loss and if continued sufficiently, it will become permanent. Workplace health and safety regulations mandate the issuance of protective earplugs to all workers who are exposed to sustained levels of 85 dB or higher. An 8-hour shift spent at this level is sufficient to cause permanent noise-induced hearing loss.

While hearing protection is important, so too is communication, so a basic wax or silicone product is unsuitable. What is required is a product with adjustable attenuation, so that while protecting the wearer from the effects of loud noise, sounds at safe levels of perhaps 70 dB or less, such as speech, can still be heard, thereby eliminating any need for a worker to remove his or her earplugs in order to converse or to receive important instructions. For maximum efficiency, an impression of each worker’s left and right ear is made to ensure an individually-tailored, leak-proof seal.

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