The answer may surprise you.
Often, employees ask to use earbuds (in-ear headphones) instead of earplugs, ear inserts or hearing protection headphones. While listening to music may provide entertainment during the workday, it is not the best option for workplace safety.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which tests and approves plugs or inserts for noise attenuation, does not rate earbuds as they are not intended for noise reduction or hearing protection.
And while a variety of earbud styles may reduce noise, they do so only by a few decibels.
Earbuds and workplace safety
The material and length of an earbud affect its overall noise reduction capabilities. The variable lengths of individual workers' ear canals can also play a role.
However, noise reduction is not hearing protection.
Regardless of the variables, when earbuds are used, ambient sounds plus music contribute to a larger amount of noise—similar to increasing the volume of a car radio when traveling at high speeds.
Using earbuds to listen to music may make a noisy workplace more pleasant, but with a higher overall sound level, employee health and safety may be compromised.
Earmuffs are also not hearing protection
Wearing earmuffs over earbuds to provide noise reduction is not recommended for workplace safety reasons.
This combination may prevent the employee from hearing necessary warnings, such as:
- fire alarms
- back-up alarms
- or other warnings from adjacent employees or public address systems.
If noise is a hazard in the workplace, hearing protection headphones should be used properly.
Bottom line: Safety first with hearing protection
Earbuds are designed for comfort and sound quality, not noise reduction or hearing protection.
Do not use earbuds for hearing protection or workplace safety.
If hazardous noise levels are present, or levels above 85 decibels, use hearing protection headphones.