Sooner than later, hotrodders and racers all expose themselves to noise that can damage their hearing. That’s why, when you wander through the pits at a big drag race event, many crew members wear full hearing protection.

And we’re not just talking about hearing protection for a race track here either, we’re talking about ear plugs or ear muffs for a busy, working shop.

Funny Car crewman wearing ear muff hearing protection during race
While most of us don’t tune a Fuel Funny Car for a living, we do still make a lot of racket—even in the workshop. (Image/Auto Imagery)

As an example, say you’re using an air compressor-driven grinder. In the background, a big two stage compressor could be hammering away. The grinder is wailing but you’re oblivious, as finishing the project is front row center in your mind.

The reality is, in that scenario, you’re subject to considerable noise—some of which can lead to long term hearing loss.

Chris craft and other vintage marine outboard motors displayed at a car show
Restore or race boats? The you already know how loud outboard motors can be. A good set of ear muffs or ear plugs can suppress excessive wind and boat engine noise. In other words, good hearing protection for boating can make it more enjoyable. (Image/OnAllCylinders – Will Schertz)

When it comes to hearing protection for racing or working, how much noise is too much noise?

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety suggests that for most jurisdictions, the occupational exposure limit is 85 decibels.

How much is 85 decibels? It all depends upon how far away you are from it. For racers and hotrodders, we’re probably all guilty of exceeding this exposure number on a regular basis.

The CDC adds that prolonged exposure to noise over 70 dB may start to damage to your hearing. Noise over 120 dB can cause immediate harm to your hearing. Here are some common examples of noise (in terms of decibels) for comparison:

  • 120 dB: Fireworks
  • 97 dB: Fire alarm
  • 85 dB: Lawnmower
  • 85 dB: Food blender
  • 70 dB: Washing machine
  • 60 dB: Normal conversation
  • 20 dB: Ticking watch
  • 10 dB : Normal breathing
Even a running, muffled big block can make a lot of racket—actually over the limit for sustained noise many government agencies recommend. And this certainly isn’t the loudest thing in our shop either! (Image/Wayne Scraba)

The choice of hearing protectors is a very personal one and depends upon a number of factors including level of noise, comfort, and the suitability of the hearing protector for both the worker and the environment. Most importantly, the hearing protector should provide the proper level of noise reduction for the exposure you’re subjected too.

What are your hearing protection options and what are the pros and cons? According to the CDC:

Expandable Foam Plugs: These plugs are made of a formable material designed to expand and conform to the shape of each person’s ear canal. Roll the expandable plugs into a thin, crease-free cylinder. Whether you roll plugs with thumb and fingers or across your palm doesn’t matter. What’s critical is the final result—a smooth tube thin enough so that about half the length will fit easily into your ear canal. Some individuals, especially women with small ear canals, have difficulty rolling typical plugs small enough to make them fit. A few manufacturers now offer a small size expandable plug.

Pre-Molded, Reusable Plugs: Pre-molded plugs are made from silicone, plastic or rubber and are manufactured as either “one-size-fits-most” or are available in several sizes. Many pre-molded plugs are available in sizes for small, medium or large ear canals.

A critical tip about pre-molded plugs is that a person may need a different size plug for each ear. The plugs should seal the ear canal without being uncomfortable. This takes trial and error of the various sizes. Directions for fitting each model of pre-molded plug may differ slightly depending on how many flanges they have and how the tip is shaped. Insert this type of plug by reaching over your head with one hand to pull up on your ear. Then use your other hand to insert the plug with a gentle rocking motion until you have sealed the ear canal.

Kyle Koretsky unzipping race suit after race with hearing protection
“Advantages of pre-molded plugs are that they are relatively inexpensive, reusable, washable, convenient to carry, and come in a variety of sizes. Nearly everyone can find a plug that will be comfortable and effective. In dirty or dusty environments, you don’t need to handle or roll the tips.” (Image/Auto Imagery)

Canal Caps: Canal caps often resemble earplugs on a flexible plastic or metal band. The earplug tips of a canal cap may be a formable or pre-molded material. Some have headbands that can be worn over the head, behind the neck or under the chin. Newer models have jointed bands increasing the ability to properly seal the earplug.

The main advantage canal caps offer is convenience. When it’s quiet, employees can leave the band hanging around their necks. They can quickly insert the plug tips when hazardous noise starts again. Some people find the pressure from the bands uncomfortable. Not all canal caps have tips that adequately block all types of noise. Generally, the canal caps tips that resemble stand-alone earplugs seem to block the most noise.

Earmuffs: Earmuffs come in many models designed to fit most people. They work to block out noise by completely covering the outer ear. Muffs can be “low profile” with small ear cups or large to hold extra materials for use in extreme noise.

Workers who have heavy beards or sideburns or who wear glasses may find it difficult to get good protection from earmuffs. The hair and the temples of the glasses break the seal that the earmuff cushions make around the ear. For these workers, earplugs are best. Other potential drawbacks of earmuffs are that some people feel they can be hot and heavy in some environments.”

Antron Brown top fuel NHRA team pushing dragster to starting line
Some ear muffs also include electronic components to help users communicate or to “noise cancel” impulsive sounds. (Image/Auto Imagery)


The best part about this, is that hearing protection doesn’t have to be expensive.

For example, has hearing protection options that only cost a few bucks. For a closer look, check out the pics below:

Taking your kids to a race? Or are they your shop apprentices? Don’t overlook their hearing protection too. Summit Racing offers Fast Kids Club Safety Ear Muffs that are perfectly sized for a child’s noggin. (Image/Summit Racing)
These soft foam earplugs from Klein Tools (part number KLE-6054010) are cheap, simple options. They’re disposable and can easily be fit into an ear canal. They have a noise reduction rating of 33 decibels and can be easily stuffed into your pocket, glove box, or tool bag, so they’re ready when you need them. (Image/Summit Racing)
Milwaukee Tool makes these handy reusable corded ear plugs. The design allows you to wear them all day, but still remove them (and keep track of them) easily. The plugs are made from soft, comfortable silicone. (Image/Milwaukee Tool)
Also from Milwaukee Tool are these banded ear plugs. This setup allows you to pivot the band to a more secure location. They can be used with foam plugs or flanged ear plugs. They offer an impressive 25 dB of noise reduction. (Image/Milwaukee Tool)
Here are banded ear plugs from 3M (part number TES-7100155182). Basically, banded ear plugs are a lightweight alternative to ear muffs. The noise reduction rating for these particular plugs is 28 decibels. (Image/3M)

If you prefer ear muffs, here’s an affordable set from SAS Safety Corp. These lightweight hearing protectors have a noise reduction rating of 23 decibels. (Image/Summit Racing)

These ear muffs from 3M (Part Number: TES-7000009) are recommended in situations where your ears are regularly subjected to noise up to 105 dBA. Internally, they offer a liquid/foam filled earmuff cushion. On the outside, the headband is designed to distribute weight for a low pressure fit. They have a noise reduction rating of 30 decibels. They’re not the cheapest option, but if you’re regularly working in noisy environments, it’s well worth it. (Image/Summit Racing)
Author: Wayne Scraba

Wayne Scraba is a diehard car guy and regular contributor to OnAllCylinders. He’s owned his own speed shop, built race cars, street rods, and custom motorcycles, and restored muscle cars. He’s authored five how-to books and written over 4,500 tech articles that have appeared in sixty different high performance automotive, motorcycle and aviation magazines worldwide.