OVER THE MANY YEARS I'VE BEEN writing for different magazines, I've often returned to the principles of hearing health. (For an overview, check out SRO's May 2003 issue.) This month, I'll focus on some of the approaches you can use to protect yourself on the job. Whether you've been contracted to supply and run a sound system, or you're a tech at a gig, or your workplace is a noisy environment, this article covers some of the basics. In the end, I'd like you to commit to developing healthy hearing practices, and to encourage others to do the same.


According to the Hearing Alliance of America, about 24 million people in the United States (or 8% of the general population) have “significant loss of hearing,” with 40% of those under the age of 65. While there is a greater incidence of experiencing hearing loss as we age, there are sobering statistics regarding young adults. Fifteen percent of college graduates demonstrate hearing loss “equal to or greater than their parents.” Approximately two million teenagers under 18 have already experienced serious hearing loss.

It's important to add that multiple factors influence hearing impairment. For example, one in 31 people in the U.S. has a genetic deficit that may put them at greater risk and 60% of hearing loss is considered genetic. That said, overexposure to loud sound definitely contributes to if not causes hearing problems encountered by the people under 65 in this country. How many is a tricky prospect. For example, in March 2005 the Xinhua News Agency reported that 130 million people in China — or 1 in 10 — have tinnitus. “Most young patients' tinnitus is developed from too much stress,” offered a physician at the People's Hospital of Wuhan University.

That emotional stress does influence the presence of “ringing in the ears” shows us that what influences clear hearing can be complex. But even though we can't point to high SPLs as a primary culprit in hearing loss, it still behooves us to protect what we have as we get older. Roughly 90% of people over 80 have impaired hearing so why be in a rush to join them by ignoring your fatiguing, loud work surroundings? Oh, and if you don't know how loud your environment is, buy or borrow an SPL meter. Radio Shack sells analog and digital versions that are relatively inexpensive. Take periodic readings during your workday and keep a log.


What's the big deal? Keep a large supply of industrial foam plugs around and pop them in when you need them. That's fine, but human beings are a funny lot. We generally don't like sticking things in our ear because…well, we can't hear as well that way. While foam provides adequate protection from high SPLs, it can attenuate the high frequencies enough to make it hard to understand speech. In addition, people wearing plugs can feel as if their own voice is in their head — also known as the occlusion effect — and this provides an added distraction. A common reaction is to loosely insert the foam plugs, defeating the purpose and leaving one at risk. My advice is keep foam plugs with you or near you at all times. They're reliable, relatively inexpensive, and will come in handy when you forget your main, on-the-job protection: custom-molded plugs. Below I've listed a few that are worth looking into. Note that all of them will provide relatively flat attenuation across the audible frequency spectrum:

  • Etymotic Research offers the ER-9, ER-15, and ER-25 Musician's Earplugs, with the number corresponding to the amount of sound reduction in dB. Etymotic does not create the molds for your ear but does refer you to one of their authorized Earmold Labs. Replacement filters run around $80/pair for each model.

  • Precision Audiotronics also makes ER-9, ER-15, and ER-25 Musician's Earplugs, with replacement filters available for $60. The company claims it's the “only company to incorporate a snap-ring into the ER earmold to prevent earmolds from falling out under strenuous use.” They also make the Hearing Alarm, a device whose indicator LEDs shine green, yellow, or red when SPLs have exceeded specific thresholds. Cost for the box is $27.

  • The Sensaphonics ER-9/15/25 earplugs were actually developed using Etymotic Research filters. However, the company notes that the molds are made of a “unique super-soft silicone gel material” where the filters are embedded in the mold to prevent them from falling out.

  • Westone Laboratories is a custom earmold laboratory that offers a variety of styles to choose from. Their ES49 Musician's Earplugs will accept ER-9, ER-15, or ER-25 filters. Their website provides a useful exposure guideline chart that I've included as an illustration (see Fig. 1).

In general, total cost for a pair of custom plugs with filters should run you between $150 and $200. Check with each company for estimates.


Now that you have seen the variety of molded options available, there's one more thing to do: Get your hearing checked and find out what your base line measurements are. Practicing good hearing health includes monitoring your hearing in a quantifiable way. Check out the House Ear Institute's website (www.hei.org) to get a list of audiologist's practicing in your area. Once the audiologist has completed their test, it's likely they'll be able to make ear impressions for your custom molds. Do it now.

All of us know someone who's suffered from hearing loss. And it's especially sad when that individual is a talented musician or engineer. When 60% of the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame say they're hearing impaired, that should be caution enough to anyone whose working gigs on a regular basis. So protect yourself. No one else will do it for you.

Alex Artaud practices hearing health in Oakland, CA. He encourages you to follow this link for his earlier piece on the topic: http://sromagazine.biz/mag/price_pros_pay/