I use a hearing protection in my shop every day. The pressure of the ear muffs on my ears feels so natural to me now that I feel naked without them when I am in the shop. When the time came to replace my current pair of ear muffs, it occurred to me that I don't actually know if my ears muffs offer enough protection. I decided to do some research. What is the best hearing protection for woodworkers available today?
Why wear protection?
Noise induced hearing loss(NIHL) is a preventable hearing disorder. As the name suggest, exposure to high levels of sounds can cause irreversible loss of hearing. For woodworkers the onset of this disorder is usually gradually. Over the years we lose more and more of our hearing. In old age hearing aids become an inevitability.
Higher levels of noise have a higher chance of triggering the disorder. The following table shows the maximum levels of exposure to sound that is considered safe. Since everyone's hearing is different, these numbers should be considered as a guideline only.
Noise Level (dB)
Max daily exposure
As you can see, the tools we use every day are dangerous to our hearing. At 90dB+ almost all of them can cause damage to our hearing within minutes. All woodworkers will develop some degree of NIHL, if he or she does not protect their hearing around power tools.
Ear Muffs and Ear Plugs
Hearing protection comes in two forms: ear muffs and ear plugs. Ear muffs are typically more effective than ear plugs, but both work to some degree. The choice comes down to the desired level of protection and comfort.
Ear muffs are my choice, because they are easier to remove when I don't need them. They also don't have to be cleaned very often. Ear plugs have to be cleaned daily.
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)
By law all hearing protection sold in the United States must have an NRR rating. This rating is a number that specifies the average number of decibels of sound reduction achieved by the product. The higher the number, the more capable the ear muffs are. The number is an average, because ear muffs don't perform equally well at different sound levels and sound frequencies.
The problem with the NRR is that it's up to the manufacturer to measure and supply it to the customer. There is no accountability around these numbers. A decade ago the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended that the consumer degrade the NRR rating or ear muffs by 25%. The NRR at the time had that much error built in. It is not clear if anything has changed recently. The NRR numbers are still under the control of the manufacturers.
If we cannot trust the NRR, what can we trust?
ASNI and CSA rated
The ASNI S12.6-2008 (US) and CSA Z94.2-02 (Canada) standards specify methods for rating hearing protectors. Hearing protection rated according to one of these standards will meet or exceed the acceptable level of performance specified in the standards. There is no room for cheating.
The NRR ratings on standard compliant hearing protection carry more weight due to the higher level of accountability. If you buy hearing protection, rated protection is the superior choice.
How much protection is enough?
You need enough protection to reduce the noise your loudest tool produces to about 80dB. Since most woodworkers own a router, a tool that can reach 100db+, NRR 30dB ear muffs are the default choice in this environment. At -30dB of average reduction these products are at the top end of the NRR ratings.
Should the 25% reduction in NRR the NIOSH recommends still hold, a NRR 30db set will probably still be adequate for your use in your shop.
Also, NRR 30dB ear muffs do not block all sound. This is a desirable quality. For instance, hearing your table saw starting to bind during a cut can prevent a very dangerous kickback incident. Ear muffs with a built in radio or music player can be a poor choice for woodworking. Exercise common sense when using them.
There are plenty of choices in the market today. In general, rated ear muffs are of high quality and have very strong customer feedback. There is no reason to buy a non-rated pair given the multitude of options in the market today.
On Amazon the Peltor H10A Optime 105 ear muffs are the runaway favorites. With over 500 mostly positive reviews, an ANSI rating, and NRR 29dB protection, they are the obvious choice. I am very happy with my pair.
Noise induced hearing loss is a very real threat to woodworkers. Thankfully there is an easy way to protect yourself. High NRR hearing protectors with an ANSI or CSA rating will protect you from the noise produced by your power tools. Plenty of inexpensive hearing protectors are available.