After turning on the planer and dust collector any workshop immediately heads past the 85-decibel limit that is considered safe. Which is why having the best hearing protection is a must.
While woodworkers will have a preference between choosing ear muffs, ear plugs or hybrids of the two with Bluetooth one thing is a must: picking the highest NRR.
Woodworking Ear Protection
1. Bluetooth Ear Plugs For Music and Phones: ISOTUNES
When it comes to Bluetooth you might think of over the ear muffs first. However, and surprisingly for OSHA compliance, there is a surprisingly compact solution: earplugs.
The first question for many, including myself, is what is the noise reduction ratting (NRR) and are they safe?
Well, fortunately, there are a few brands that are OSHA and ANSI certified and have a 22-27 NRR that will provide woodworkers hearing protection in moderately loud environments.
When wouldn’t I use them? I would put these down when using high decibel machinery like a planer or if I’m spending hours at a machine like a table saw. While 27 NRR for a Bluetooth earplug is good, there are higher decibel reduction solutions on the market.
Surprisingly, the ISOTunes are one of the few ear plugs that are OSHA certified and this version offers a NRR rating of 27.
For reference, it’s hard to find a quality pair of ear muffs with an NRR over 35.
Key features of the ISOTunes 2.0:
- Heat activated memory foam ear tips
- ANSI-certified and OSHA-compliant
- 27dB of noise reduction
- 16 hour battery life
- Clear call technology in loud environment with noise cancellation
2. Bluetooth Ear Muffs: 3M Worktunes Bluetooth Ear Muffs
While slightly less NRR than the classic style ear muffs the Bluetooth version offers up more functionality to get your through the grind.
And, you can combine these in high decibel jobs with inexpensive, standard earplugs.
Key features of these Bluetooth ear muffs:
- Integrated microphone
- Flexible headband with cutouts for hard hats
- Make and take calls
- Longer batter life with some models up to 30 hours
- Noise amplification and shooting protection (optional)
Pros and Cons
3. Noise Amplification Ear Muffs: PROHEAR GEL
Taking a twist on the standard bluetooth ear muffs, noise cancelling earmuffs with sound amplification offer:
- Quality NRR (not as high as bluetooth earplugs)
- Fast noise cancellation that allows for conversations but (in some models) 0.005 second reaction time to stop loud noises
Pros and Cons
4. Hearing Protector Plugs: SILICON PLUGS 28 NRR
For portable hearing protection without the weight and pressure of ear muffs a plug is a great option to try.
Besides increased portability of a hearing plug, you’ll also enjoy benefits such as:
- Improved portability as you can put some in your toolbox, truck, pocket or leave at the jobsite
- Throw-away use (though most can be re-used)
- For extremely loud environments plugs can be combined with ear muffs for a slightly increased NRR
Pros and Cons
Why You Need Woodworking Ear Protection
If you use any saw, router, air powered tool or a just about any other power tools you need woodworking ear protection. Not much else to say – woodworking requires ear protection.
There are plenty of tools and decibel charts available to but the standard is sound at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. This includes prolonged exposure to say 86 decibels – or “impulse” sounds such as a 12 gauge shotgun at 150 dB that can cause immediate damage.
So how do I test my workshop to know my actual sound levels? The government agency NIOSH released the Sound Level Meter App to test sound levels anywhere. Now this doesn’t replace the regulated work environment tools and processes. As you can guess, it does bring high quality sound testing to your smartphone. If you don’t have an iPhone and need a testing tool you can get one on Amazon.
Following the directions and reports available within this application you can determine what the sound levels of your workshop are. Don’t forget, cabinet installation tools should be included in your evaluation. Hint: table saws, jigsaws, planers, grinders, belt sanders, routers, and many more tools are typically above 100 decibels.
What is noise induced hearing loss?
So now you know that prolonged exposure to 85 decibels or higher is a problem, what causes hearing loss?
Loss of ear hair causes hearing loss. No not the kind old men have – but little hairs deep inside your inner ear that enable sound to be transferred into something our brains understand. Certain types of “impulse” noises exceeding 140-150 decibels can cause instant damage.
Prolonged exposure over 85 decibels will also cause damage. The National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders (NIDC) has a full rundown of how the ear works if you want all the technical details on sound transfer.
Humans cannot regrow hair cells so damage done to your hearing is permanent. Noise induced hearing loss is no joke.
What should I look for in hearing protection?
Get ready for a little bit of math to determine what you need in hearing protection – but since you know woodworking this will be a breeze. The goal, of course, is to get under 85dB to avoid hearing loss. You first need to know what your exposure in decibels is. We showed you an application for your iPhone, but if you need a device (sorry Android users) you can get one on Amazon. Once you know your sound levels you can keep going.
Now that you have your decibel exposure in hand you can start picking out hearing protection. Sometimes, as crazy as it sounds, you might need two protectors to reduce the noise to an acceptable level. And it’s possible you might not get to a safe working limit and length of exposure or other fixes may be required.
Stick with it – the math will get a little involved but it’s important to understand.
Hearing protectors are rated by their Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). You will see a range of offerings from 20-35+ NRR ear muffs and ear plugs. If you have a table saw and your working distance decibel level is 110dB then a 35 NRR hearing muff should do it – right? 110-35 = 85dB. Confusingly no – the formula is a bit trickier as the 35 NRR actual decibel reduction is (NRR – 7)/2. Or, (35-7)/2 = 14dB reduction against the 110dB table saw makes for a 96dB actual sound.
So how do you get to 85dB? You can double up the hearing protectors and use ear muffs and ear plugs. Add in a 29 NRR set of ear plugs (29-7)/2 = 11dB and you could reduce that 96dB sound to 85dB.
Best music playing hearing protectors
Woodworking is monotonous. Having music to (safely) power you through the day is a great option.
For your lower decibel activities having another set of hearing protectors is a great option. Remember you will lose NRR rating, and based on volume of music possibly cancel out the NRR all together.
Things to look for in this category:
- Lithium battery and playing time
- NRR rating
- Earmuffs vs. earplug headphones
Frequently Asked Questions
What is NRR?
NRR is the noise reduction rating of hearing protection devices. The higher the NRR, the more decibels the ear protectors will protect against.
Can I use my airpods while woodworking?
While airpods with noise cancelling technology can reduce perceived noise, they are not generally marked as hearing protectors. Consult the latest manufacturer instructions before considering them as hearing devices.
Can Bluetooth hearing protectors function to make phone calls?
Yes, most Bluetooth enabled hearing protectors have a built in audio and microphone to allow you to make and take phone calls.
While woodworking is an enjoyable and relaxing hobby safety equipment is a must to ensure decades of safe building. And having the right hearing protection for woodworking will help you enjoy this hobby for decades to come.
Disclaimer: Any business, entity, or individual regulated by any government (state or federal) agency must follow their respective guidelines, regulations, laws, etc. and hearing protection as governed or regulated. Hearing protectors only reduce decibels, and use may still result in hearing loss.