I learned over the years, from working around loud aircraft, military bases and environments, industrial plant noises, and firearms shooting ranges that serious, long-term hearing problems can quickly occur. Initially, individuals may not recognize the hearing degradation, the severity of loss, or not understand what is occurring with their hearing, so they put off dealing with it. Because of the gradual change in hearing, some people are not aware of the change at first.
Sadly, my father worked in a chemical plant around loud machinery, had a partial hearing loss, and eventually used a hearing aid. For people exposed to loud noises, there is usually continuous ringing in the ears, terrible ear pain, and there may be partial or permanent hearing loss, from job-related and/or non-job-related noises. Some damage to the eardrum and middle ear structures can be reversed through surgery or medication, according to the Veterans Administration. Sensorineural hearing loss, caused by damage to the inner ear and auditory nerve, is permanent, but can often be helped through the use of hearing aids, according to the Veterans Administration research at VA research on Hearing Loss.
Sometimes new and younger workers don’t pay as much attention as they should to protecting their hearing, forgoing hearing protection for just that one time… or focusing only on eye protection in the workplace or at the range. I certainly consider both eye and ear protection very important and mandatory for aircraft, shooting, hunting, and other loud noise and risky environments. For me as an NRA-Certified Pistol Instructor, hearing and eye protection are mandatory at the range for all my students.
The Veterans Administration, the Worldwide Health Organization (WHO), and other Hearing organizations have some alarming hearing-loss statistics:
- Veterans Administration research shows that 37.5 million Americans aged 18 and over are affected by hearing loss in 2021, with more than half of those aged 75 and over;
- Veterans Administration research also shows that hearing problems are the most prevalent service-connected disability among veterans;
- About 500 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss;
- About 34 million of the above hearing losses are children;
- WHO estimates that by 2050 1 in 10 people will have disabling hearing loss;
- WHO statistics show that 1.1 billion people between the ages of 12 and 35 are at risk for hearing loss due to recreational noise exposure;
- The Hearing Health Foundation reports that many veterans have trouble understanding speech as a result of auditory processing disorders, which may be associated with blast exposure;
- In the U.S., $980 billion is the approximate global cost of unaddressed hearing loss;
- A person with unaided hearing loss may earn $20,000 less a year, depending on degree of loss, according to the Hearing Health Foundation;
- The prevalence of depression among those with hearing loss is 2.3 times greater than that of their hearing counterparts; and
- A National Library of Medicine Report about recreational firearms shooting concludes that the hearing of the shooter who does not use hearing protection is at risk, since the majority of firearms generate a damaging level of high-intensity impulse sounds and there is a resulting bilateral, high-frequency, noise-induced hearing loss greater than for non shooters.
Examples of Typical Noise Levels (Approximate & Just Decibels Impact):
NOTES: (1) The OSHA permissible noise level exposure is 115 dB for just 15 minutes. (2) The NIOSH permissible noise level is 97 dB for 30 minutes. (3) The CDC says noise above 70 dB over a prolonged period may start to damage hearing, while loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to ears.
|Washing Machine||75 dB|
|Power Lawnmower||90 dB|
|Electric Drill||95 dB|
|Motorcycle Engine Running||100 dB|
|Hockey or Football Games||100 dB|
|Leaf Blower||110 dB|
|Ambulance Siren||120 dB|
|Jack Hammer||130 dB|
|Rock Music Concert||140 dB|
|Fire Crackers or Fireworks||150 dB|
|Jet Engine Running||150 dB|
|Rocket Lift Off||170 dB|
Here are some example average decibel (dB) noise levels when shooting various calibers of firearms:
|.25 ACP||155.0 dB|
|.32 LONG||152.4 dB|
|.32 ACP||153.5 dB|
|.38 S&W||153.5 dB|
|.38 Spl||156.3 dB|
|.357 Magnum||164.3 dB|
|.40 S&W||156.5 dB|
|.41 Magnum||163.2 dB|
|.44 S&W Magnum||164.5 dB|
|.44 Spl||155.9 dB|
|.45 ACP||157.0 dB|
|.45 COLT||154.7 dB|
|12 Gauge Shotgun||155 dB|
|.22 Pistol or Rifle||140 dB|
Noise Hazard from Shooting
The noise from gunfire is one of the most hazardous, non-occupational noises that people are exposed to. Of course, military members and veterans are or have been or will be exposed to gunfire and blasts. It’s possible to a degree that a single gunshot heard by an unprotected ear can lead to immediate and permanent hearing loss, often accompanied by tinnitus or ringing, hissing or humming in the ears. The Cleveland Clinic and the Sight and Hearing Association report that hearing loss can definitely result from a single gunshot or from noise over an extended time. According to Dr. William Clark, senior research scientist of the Noise Laboratory at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, “the damage caused by one shot from a .357 magnum pistol, which can expose a shooter to 165 dB for 2 msec (two thousandth of a second), is equivalent to over 40 hours in a noisy workplace.” Dr. Thomas Krammer, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana echoes this.
Generally, noise becomes damaging to unprotected hearing above a certain amplitude level for a certain duration of time, usually cited as about 90 dB for 8 hours. The OSHA permissible noise level exposure is 115 dB for just 15 minutes. Both amplitude (loudness volume) and intensity duration are related to a sound’s power and possible hearing damage.
So without hearing protection, listening to tame and soft rock music at 90 dB for 30 minutes may not be as damaging as working in an industrial plant environment or hearing continuous gunshots at 90 dB for 6 hours or so. Or listening to rock music at 140 dB. As the amplitude increases, the time duration your ears can tolerate noise without damage goes down. For example, at 115 dB the duration drops to 15 minutes or less and the pain threshold begins usually at about 130 dB. A dangerous sound is usually considered to be anything over 85dB for an extended period of time, without protection, but a single loud gunshot for a short time can also be very damaging. Most gun shots average a dB level of 150 to 160, as the above chart indicates. The normal conversation benchmark is 60 dB, while a jet takeoff is about 150 dB, and a jackhammer has 130 dB. I recall one time at the shooting range when I forgot to put my hearing protector muffs on when shooting one round… and the resulting loud bang and ringing in my ears just from one occurrence.
Dr. Michael Stewart, Professor of Audiology at the University of Central Michigan and the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, gets specific and says that exposure to noise greater than 140 dB can permanently damage hearing, prolonged and without protection. This supports Dr. Clark’s above research. Stewart says that almost all firearms create noise that is over the 140-dB level. A small .22-caliber gun can produce noise around 140 dB, while big-bore rifles and pistols can produce sound over 175 dB.
Also, adding muzzle brakes or other modifications can make the firearm louder. Dr. Stewart says that shooters who do not wear hearing protection while shooting can suffer a severe hearing loss with as little as one shot, if the conditions are right. So just because you might have shot without hearing protection in the past, and without apparent hearing loss, does not mean you might not damage your hearing the next time.
EXAMPLES: Decibel Level, Activity, Loudness, and Pain
PAINFULLY Uncomfortable and Extremely Loud:
- 150 dB = Rock Concerts at Peak
- 140 dB = Firearms, Air-Raid Siren, Jet Engine at Peak
- 130 dB = Jackhammer
- 125 dB = Jet Plane Take-off, Amplified Music at 4-6 feet, Car Stereo, Band Practice
- 110 dB = Machinery, Model Airplanes
- 100 dB = Snowmobile, Chain saw, Pneumatic Drill
- 90 dB = Lawnmower, Shop Tools, Truck Traffic, Subway
- 80 dB = Alarm Clock, Busy Street
- 70 dB = Vacuum Cleaner
- 60 dB = Conversation, Dishwasher
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is the hearing protection rating method used in the U.S. The current range of NRRs available in the U.S. market extends from 0 to about 33 decibels. The NRR is derived from an involved calculation that begins with attenuation test results from at least ten laboratory subjects across a range of frequencies. Two standard deviations are factored in to account for individual user variation, and several corrections and cushions are included to make the NRR applicable to a broader population, and a wide variety of noise sources. The NRR is the most standardized method currently in use for describing a hearing protector’s attenuation in a single number and estimates the amount of protection achievable by 98% of users in a laboratory setting when hearing protectors are properly fitted.
Calculating Noise Level Exposure
Understand that the NRR is not a precise, strictly empirical calculation, but rather an average reduction in sound intensity provided by the equipment in a controlled laboratory setting. The NRR rating is tested by following the ANSI S3.19-1974 standard.
EXAMPLE: Decibel Noise-Level Exposure and Hearing Protection NRR
You are at a shooting range shooting your 9mm pistol and there is 160 dB of noise exposure;
- You are wearing earplugs with an NRR of 29 dB;
- What is your actual amount of decibel noise reduction? Calculate it.
Note: Your level of exposure is NOT reduced by subtracting 29dB of your hearing protection directly from the 160 dB of exposure. 131 dB is NOT your actual exposure.
The Calculation: Take the NRR rating in dB (29 dB), subtract seven (7 is the standard), get 22 dB, and then divide by two = 11 dB. Then given the noise exposure from the pistol of 160 dB, subtract 11 dB and get 149 dB, your new (more realistic actual) level of noise exposure. So, the earplugs alone are some help in reducing the noise exposure.
The New Realistic Noise Exposure Level Answer: 149 dB
Another Example: You are at a rock concert where the level of noise exposure is 150 db and you are wearing earplugs with an NRR 27 dB, the noise exposure would be (27-7/2 =10), then 150 dB -10 = 140 dB new more realistic noise exposure. Perhaps, consider double protection and/or using electronic hearing protectors, if there is long exposure and high intensity. Explaining this precaution to some and teenagers may be a challenge.
Check the noise reduction rating (NRR) of your hearing protector. All hearing protection devices are rated according to how much noise (in decibels) they will reduce for the wearer. While wearing hearing protection your exposure to noise is not equal to the total noise level minus the NRR of the hearing protectors in use, as the previous examples show. Again for example, if you were exposed to 80db of noise but were wearing earplugs with an NRR of 29, your actual noise exposure would NOT be 51 dB. Follow the formula and subtract 7 from the NRR rating.
Types of Hearing Protection:
- Passive Ear Plugs – These are basically soft plugs that are usually made from plastic or some type of foam based substance. These plugs are placed into the ear opening and they serve to dampen any high volume sound that the ear is exposed to. They are called “passive” because these plugs don’t utilize any electronic devices that damper noises. Ear plugs are by far the least expensive form of ear protection, but do they actually work well? The sound is dampened a bit, but can still be quite loud. The plugs help some, but they really don’t protect your ears as well as they can be protected.
- Passive Hearing Protection – This model generally is comprised of ear muffs that have a cup which encompasses the entire ear. The muffs are usually attached by a headband or headpiece of some type. Like the passive ear plugs, this model won’t have the electronic sound dampening device. The ear muff style design is nice as the cup has a seal that protects the entire ear from the noise versus the ear plugs which only partially protect the ear canal itself. Most ear muff models have the ability to be adjusted, although some of the less expensive ear muff models may not have this feature. Unfortunately, ear muffs of this design dampen all or most sound, so the wearer can’t hear anyone speaking or any other important sounds.
- Electronic Noise-Cancelling Hearing Protection – This design incorporates an ear muff style and integrates it with electronic technology that reduces the noise down to a level that isn’t harmful to the human ear. The entire sound dampening process takes place faster than the blink of an eye as the suppressed sound is transmitted to the wearer almost instantly. When a gunshot is detected, the electronic earmuffs compress the signal to reduce volume within about .002 seconds.
- The best feature of electronic hearing protection is the ability to hear everything that is going on around you while you are shooting. In many situations, such as on the range, during training, or while hunting; this can be a great benefit. Of course, due to the technology needed, electronic hearing protection tends to be the most expensive of all the hearing protection devices. A number of the higher end electronic models may have other enhancements such as a separate volume control for each side of the ear muffs, enhanced adjustability, a battery saver feature to conserve battery use, and ambient sound magnification. The ambient sound magnification is a great benefit for hunters as it amplifies noise to a degree that is far greater than the naked ear can hear. At the same time, the augmented sound is instantly dampened when a shot is fired.
Electronic Hearing Protection Headsets vs. Passive Hearing Protection Earmuffs
Both Electronic Headsets and classic earmuffs have advantages and disadvantages. Earmuffs offer comfort without any direct pressure inside the ear canal. The three common styles of earmuffs are the standard over-the-head, cap-mounted and behind-the-neck. The cap-mounted earmuffs are design to mount directly to most hard hats that have side-accessory slots. Behind-the-neck style can also be used while wearing headwear. Classic earmuffs are less expensive than electronic headsets and tend to have a slightly higher NRR.
Electronic Earmuffs provide the same protection as standard earmuffs but also offer other special features. These headsets allow you to protect your hearing from loud noises while still being able to listen to low sound levels such as conversations. Others features besides distort free amplification can include audio jacks, automatic shut offs and volume controls. Electronic headsets are available in multiple models like traditional earmuffs, but are more expensive and require batteries.
What’s the Best Hearing Protection Choice for You?
Assess your basic requirements and match them to the appropriate option above. Generally, I would NOT recommend the basic passive ear plugs. While they are certainly better than nothing, they provide only the minimum of protection. If you work in a low-hazard job with low occupational noise levels, shoot a firearm very infrequently, or don’t have the work-identified need for the additional capabilities of an electronic model, basic passive ear muffs will most likely work at a very minimal level. But, carefully decide since you may not want these for your exposures. If you are exposed to higher noise levels, or even have a remote possibility of encountering moderate or high noise levels, are an active shooter or hunter, the electronic models can be a worthwhile purchase with all their added features and reduced-risk noise exposure.
If not certain, keep your peace of mind and get an electronic model. I switched from passive headphones to an electronic model for all my work, range, hunting, and fun purposes and don’t regret it. Some acceptable, moderately-priced brands of hearing protectors to consider are Radians, Peltors, Pro Ears, Winchester, Caldwell, Howard Leight, Browning, and Remington. Prices range from just under $20 for passive earmuffs to up to $250 and more for electronic headsets. Generally, you should be able to get a decent pair of passive earmuffs for about $20. and a decent electronic set for about $60. At the end of the day, the choice really comes down to your own personal preferences, frequency of shooting, and needs. But, put your hearing loss prevention as your top goal.
Why I Use Electronic Ear Protection
Although I own several different hearing protection devices, I prefer electronic noise canceling headsets that detect sharp, loud noises, allow me to hear my students clearly, and cancel the volume in the headset for a split second when I shoot or operate certain machines. Of course, I need to regularly hear and understand my students talking to me at the range and I shoot very regularly. My electronic headset cancels loud noises up to an acceptable level and also increases the volume of ambient sounds, so I actually hear better.
Standard ear muffs deaden sound to a somewhat decent level of safety, but hearing low-level sounds is NOT possible. When plinking for fun at my outdoor range, I might be tempted to use standard passive earmuffs, as they are usually lighter and a little more comfortable than my amplified type. But, then I remember the possible increased risk and possible permanent hearing loss and make an informed decision. I play it safe and use my electronic ear protection because I know they will be less risky and safer for me. When I’m teaching a class of students at the outdoor range where it is important to hear student-shooters ask questions, I always wear electronic earmuffs. I had a student who wore a hearing aid and she found it best for her condition to use both plugs and muffs.
Protect yourself. Select and always use proper hearing protection because you have only one set of ears.
Photo by Author.
Note: This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek guidance from your personal trainer or a health expert knowledgeable about your situation and using proper eye and ear protection. This article should not be relied upon as accurate for all situations, individuals, and shooters. The author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.
© 2023 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col. Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.