Inserts, Over-the-Ear Muffs & Behind-the-Ear Designs are Used Most

During a recent interview with Bob Walker, a hearing health specialist and founder of Walker’s Game Ear, a company that helped revolutionize hearing protection for hunters and shooters, explained that not all hearing protection devices for sportsmen are created equal.

Hunters Select Three Hearing Protection Devices Most Often

The devices used most often by shooters and hunters are

  • ear inserts (foam and mechanical),
  • over-the-ear muffs and
  • behind-the-ear designs.

Some offer hearing protection only, while others offer amplification coupled with protection.

“Foam inserts provide the best protection from noise-related hearing loss,” Walker said. “When inserted properly, they expand to fill the entire canal reducing and filtering sound. The only pitfall comes when the user needs to hear and have protection at the same time. Foam plugs generally don’t work well in these circumstances. That’s when other devices should be considered.”

Units that offer amplification increase hard-to-detect sounds, like a turkey drumming or a deer walking through leaves, but shut down the amplification to protect ears from loud, potentially harmful sounds like a gun shot.

Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)

All hearing protection devices carry a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). NRR was developed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Although the validity of the NRR is hotly debated by experts in the hearing health segment, currently, it’s the only rating system in place in the U.S.

NRR does not indicate a percentage of noise reduction, but a numerical reduction in decibels. A 25 NRR labeled product reduces a 150 dB sound to 125 dB. Most hearing protection devised for shooters carry a NRR between 15 and 25.

Physiology and Fit Affect Hearing Protection Device Performance

“Not all devices provide the NRR level of protection listed on the packaging,” Walker warned. “The NRR assumes a perfect fit; and not all devices fit all users well. Physiology also plays a role. A small ear canal provides better protection than a bigger ear canal. A thicker eardrum provides more protection than a thinner one. So, different devices may work differently for people even if the NRR rating is the same.”

Walker’s beliefs are backed up by reports from NRRUpdate.com. According to the Web site, studies over the past decade show the NRR overestimates protection levels. Consequently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH) and device manufacturers believe NRR should be reduced (de-rated) by 50 percent or more to predict better the amount of protection provided.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has been working on a process to revise device testing and NRR labeling. But, as of March 2009, no new labeling system has been unveiled. So, for now, NRR is the guidepost.

Two Protection Devices Do Not Double Protection

Some hunters are so concerned about potential hearing loss that they use more than one device simultaneously. Walker offers those sportsmen a warning.

“Combining two protective devices can enhance protection,” Walker added. “But the protection isn’t cumulative. Two products with a 25 rating won’t provide 50 dB protection. But, some increase in protection is realized over using just one device.”

Always Carry Back Up Hearing Protection

Finally, Walker urges sportsmen to keep a few pairs of foam-insert protectors in the shooting vest, backpack and gun or ammo box for back-up. When the primary protective device is forgotten at home or the unit’s batteries run down or are left behind, ears can still be fully protected.