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Balancing Situational Awareness and Hearing Protection

Jan 11, 2018

Balancing Situational Awareness and Hearing Protection

Whether you’re on the range or on the hunt, handling firearms requires you to maintain awareness of your surroundings. While firearm safety may sound as simple as watching your neighbors on the range or checking your surroundings before taking a shot, being aware of your situation takes a lot more than visual awareness.

As your eyes keep you up to date on what’s in front of you, your ears keep you alerted to what’s going on all around you. Your hearing plays more of a role in your perception of the world than you may think — the snap of a twig in the woods can alert you to the presence of a buck as well as the wandering steps of a fellow hunter. That’s why maintaining your hearing is a key part of being safe in dangerous environments.

The issue becomes more complex the louder your environment gets. Though hunting often involves long periods of quiet attention, shooting ranges are notoriously loud enough to cause temporary deafness. While leaving your ears unprotected can let you hear the ambient noise of the range and listen for warning shouts, such exposure can result in long-term damage to your hearing.

So — what exactly are you supposed to do? Put in some earplugs and risk missing out on a shout or crucial cue that could jeopardize your safety? Leave them out and deal with going deaf by middle-age? What if we said you didn’t have to choose?

Read on to learn more about the methods and new technologies available today to help you stay aware of your surroundings while still protecting your hearing.

The Importance of Hearing Protection

One in five Americans has some level of hearing loss that affects their ability to understand speech. Hearing loss is considered one of the top preventable conditions related to one’s occupation or hobby. The most common cause of such hearing loss is excessive exposure to noise.

The Importance of Hearing Protection

Hearing damage tends to occur when the ear is exposed to sustained high noise levels. These noise levels are quantified in units called decibels, or dB, which measure sound pressure. For example, human speech typically produces 65 dB, while a jackhammer produces 125 dB.

The higher the sound pressure, the louder the noise and the less time needed to cause damage to the ear. While damage can occur at sustained noise levels around 85 dB, short-term exposure to 140 dB without protection can cause just as much damage. To be safe, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires hearing protection to be used in work and recreational environments with sound levels at 85 dB or higher.

The Importance of Situational Awareness

While hearing is an important thing to maintain, overprotection can be just as much of a problem. This is because of an idea known as situational awareness.

Situational awareness is the perception of elements in your environment in time and space. This includes awareness of your surroundings, your current situation and the potential dangers. Hearing is a key part of situational awareness, as hearing is a key part of perception that is always present and able to sense everything around you, unlike vision, which can only see what is immediately in front of you.

When gun users have so much hearing protection they can’t hear important sounds, such as yelling, noise alerts and other important signals, their situational awareness is reduced. This can pose a serious threat to the health and safety of both the individual and those around them.

The Need for Protection and Awareness

Many Americans have hearing loss related to their gun- or explosive-related occupations or hobbies. Unfortunately, many of these require a great deal of situational awareness as well, since any situation involving a gun or explosive has the potential to be a lethal one for the user and those around them.

Just a few of the activities requiring both qualities include:

Shooting Sports

Shooting ranges require you to wear ear protection of some kind. Each shot fired can produce from 140 to 190 dB, which can quickly build up and compound in a busy shooting range. While protection is important here, situational awareness in a shooting range is just as crucial. Someone losing hold of their firearm, misfiring or shooting into a crowd are things to be constantly vigilant about.

Shooting Sports

Pyrotechnics and Explosives

Any activity involving explosives requires ear protection. The average fireworks display produces up to 175 decibels up close, with lower-level explosions producing 150 decibels. While protecting your ears in these environments is important, it’s just as important to hear what is going on around you. A misfire or poorly timed explosion can endanger anyone in the area, so being aware of such problems is crucial to an operator or onlooker’s safety.

Military Work

Hearing loss is a major problem within the military, with one in five soldiers suffering from hearing loss, according to NPR. Between regular shooting drills to exposure to loud heavy machinery, soldiers are regularly exposed to noise levels high enough to cause permanent damage to their hearing.

However, situational awareness is equally as important for soldiers in the field, as the creak of a door or the snap of a twig can warn them of an imminent attack. Vocal orders are also important to the survival of a soldier in the middle of a firefight, so blocking out all noise is both impractical and potentially lethal.

Transition Away From Traditional Hearing Protection

Two of the most common forms of traditional hearing protection are earplugs and noise muffs. Noise muffs, also called noise reduction earmuffs, look somewhat like headphones and consist of two tight-fitting ear cups that cover the ears to block noise from entering the ear canal. Noise muffs tend to provide better noise-reducing capabilities than earplugs and are meant for repeated use.

While these traditional forms of hearing protection are excellent ways to protect the ears during situations of work-related and recreational noise exposure, they tend to block out noise more completely than other protective hearing gear. This causes serious issues in situational awareness by blocking low-level noises, such as speech.

These traditional forms of hearing protection also reduce the ability of the wearer to differentiate between different high-level noises — for example, a user of traditional protective headgear on a gun range might not be able to easily differentiate between the sound of a gunshot and the sound of a warning alarm or shout. These situations pose serious dangers to gun users, hunters and everyone around them.

While ill-suited for use over a long period, traditional earplugs and noise muffs still have their uses in short-term applications. Shooting ranges and other situations where muffs and earplugs don’t need to be worn for long periods are still suitable applications for these forms of ear wear.

Balancing Protection and Awareness

Preventing hearing overprotection and maintaining the situational awareness of workers and hobbyists involves the attention and awareness of all parties involved. Whether you work or play in the gun range or spend your weekends hunting in the woods, you should know how to properly balance hearing protection and situational awareness to maximize the safety of yourself and everyone around you.

Some things to consider when balancing ear protection and situational awareness include the following:

Balancing Protection and Awareness

  • Know Your Noise Levels: One of the biggest barriers to properly balancing protection with awareness is being unaware of the exact noise levels to expect in a location or situation. If you think noise may be an issue at a particular site, like a gun range or a hunting site, look up the decibel range to expect.

If you own a gun range, you can use decibel-measuring tools to measure the exact noise level at your range and purchase the appropriate equipment for your clients. If the noise level you expect falls below 85 dB, hearing protection may be unnecessary for your particular application. If the noise level regularly peaks above 85 dB, however, knowing the exact noise level can help you select the best hearing protection devices to protect yourself or your clients and bring these peaks down to below 85 dB.

  • Communicate the Risks: If you own a range or a hunting site, make clients and employees aware of the risks of hearing loss, as well as the risks of overprotection. Many people dismiss the negative effects of hearing loss or use loss of situational awareness as an excuse to forego their protective wear, and others are so overprotective of their hearing that they wear too much protection.

It’s critical that everyone operating in a high-noise environment remains aware of the dangers of both under-protection and overprotection.

  • Know How to Self-Check: Whether you’re working with guns regularly as a hunter or a hobbyist, you should know how to check your own hearing protection. If you’re the owner of a gun range, you should also know how to check the protective gear of your coworkers and clients and communicate with them how to check it themselves. Learn how to check the seals on your earplugs or earmuffs and how to communicate proper self-checking procedure to others.

In addition to these tips, gun range owners should make sure they have plenty of combined audible and visual cues at their place of business, such as flashing lights or audio warnings. If you are operating in a gun range, hunting site or any situation where your hearing is impaired, be sure to regularly check your surroundings with a visual sweep to make sure you’re not missing any warning signs.

While these measures don’t make up for individual situational awareness, they can go far toward preventing any serious errors or injuries.

Technology in Protection and Awareness

In addition to knowing how to maintain situational awareness in noisy environments, using enhanced hearing protection for your environment is a key part of maintaining situational awareness and hearing protection simultaneously.

To that end, the military and hearing-concerned businesses have developed new forms of hearing protection, made to help reach a compromise between hearing protection and situational awareness. Though often designed for the military, these new earplugs for situational awareness are boons to all gun-related businesses and hobbies.

Just a few of the new earplugs with situational awareness measures built in include the following:

  • Enhanced Earplugs: Whereas traditional earplugs are simple foam pieces designed to block out sound completely, new models of earplugs are now available on the market. While foam earplugs alone tend to fit poorly, new models mold more closely to the shape of the ear canal, creating a more perfect seal.

Some use a putty-like substance to mold to the shape of the ear, while others are specially made from a mold of your ear and designed to retain their shape. Still others are filled with a silicone fluid, allowing some noise transmission while simultaneously achieving a close earplug fit.

  • Electronic Ear Monitors: To combat the issues of hearing protection and situational awareness in the military, the United States Army has been deploying a top-of-the-line protection system since 2014 called TCAPS. TCAPS, which stands for Tactical Communication and Protective System, resemble normal earbuds but are much more advanced.

The earbuds effectively react to the sound in the outside environment, turning down the volume of the sound so that the wearer can still hear everything going on without damaging their hearing. The buds also increase the volume of soft sounds. As of 2016, over 20,000 pairs of these buds were deployed in the field, per NPR.

  • Percussive Filters: Percussive filters are earplug upgrades specifically designed to protect users from sound pressure peaks, such as gunshots and explosions. Similar to electronic ear monitors used for the military, percussive filters are certified to block out sounds up to 166 dB while allowing voices and ambient noise to come through when there’s no damaging noise in the environment.

Technology in Protection and Awareness

The big difference is that percussive ear filters don’t use any batteries, and they retain the directionality and spatiality of sound, blocking loud noises while leaving softer noises as they are, making it easier to adjust to using these earbuds in the long-term.

Where to Find Advanced Hearing Protection Products

Your safety and your hearing are both important parts of your health and quality of life, so don’t sacrifice one for the other. New technology is now available that can help you maintain your situational awareness while still protecting your hearing, and Decibullz can help hook you up.

Founded on the idea that custom earphones shouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg, Decibullz offers high-quality custom earbuds, and our tech is only getting better. Decibullz is proud to offer our new percussive filters. These battery-free physical filters protect your hearing while allowing you to hear ambient noise and carry on a conversation comfortably. Fit for both work and play, these incredible earbud upgrades can provide you with long-lasting hearing protection in any situation.

To learn more about Decibullz earplugs and order our new percussive filters, visit our website today.