Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

It’s one thing to realize that you need to safeguard your ears. It’s another matter to know when to safeguard your hearing. It’s more challenging than, let’s say, recognizing when you need sunscreen. (Is the sun out and will you be outdoors? Then you need sunblock.) It isn’t even as simple as recognizing when to wear eye protection (Working with hazardous chemicals? Doing some building? You need eye protection).

It can feel like there’s a large grey area when dealing with when to use hearing protection, and that can be detrimental. Usually, we’ll defer to our natural tendency to avoid hearing protection unless we’re given information that a specified activity or place is hazardous.

Determining The Risks

In general, we’re not very good at assessing risk, especially when it comes to something as intangible as damage to the ears or the probability of permanent sensorineural hearing loss. Here are some examples to prove the point:

  • Person A attends a very loud rock concert. The concert lasts around 3 hours.
  • A landscaping business is run by person B. After mowing lawns all day, she goes home and quietly reads a book.
  • Person C is an office worker.

You might believe the hearing hazard is greater for person A (let’s just call her Ann). For the majority of the next day, her ears will still be screeching from the loud concert. Assuming Ann’s activity was hazardous to her hearing would be reasonable.

Person B (let’s call her Betty), on the other hand, is exposed to less noise. Her ears don’t ring. So it must be safer for her hearing, right? Well, not really. Because Betty is riding that mower every day. Actually, the damage accumulates a little bit at a time even though they don’t ring out. Even moderate sounds, if experienced regularly, can damage your ears.

Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less evident. Lawnmowers come with instructions that emphasize the dangers of persistent exposure to noise. But although Chris has a relatively quiet job, her long morning commute through the city each day is fairly loud. Also, although she works behind her desk all day, she listens to her music through earbuds. Is protection something she should consider?

When is it Time to Worry About Protecting Your Hearing?

Generally speaking, you need to turn the volume down if you have to raise your voice to be heard. And you need to think about wearing earmuffs or earplugs if your surroundings are that loud.

So to put this a little more scientifically, you should use 85dB as your limit. Noises above 85dB have the potential to cause injury over time, so in those scenarios, you need to think about wearing ear protection.

Your ears don’t have a built-in decibel meter to notify you when you reach that 85dB level, so many hearing specialists suggest obtaining specialized apps for your phone. These apps can inform you when the surrounding noise is nearing a dangerous level, and you can take proper steps.

A Few Examples

Even if you do download that app and take it with you, your phone may not be with you everywhere you go. So we might establish a good standard with a few examples of when to protect our hearing. Here we go:

  • Household Chores: Even mowing a lawn, as previously mentioned, calls for hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a good illustration of the kind of household chore that could cause injury to your hearing but that you probably don’t think about all that often.
  • Working With Power Tools: You recognize that working every day at your factory job will require hearing protection. But how about the hobbyist building in his workshop? Even if it’s just a hobby, hearing specialists recommend using hearing protection if you’re working with power equipment.
  • Commuting and Driving: Driving all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or perhaps you’re just hanging out downtown for work or getting on the subway. The noise of living in the city is bad enough for your ears, not to mention the added injury caused by cranking up your music to drown out the city noise.
  • Exercise: Your morning spin class is a perfect example. Or perhaps your daily elliptical session. You may think about wearing hearing protection to each one. The high volume from trainers who use loud music and microphones for motivation, though it may be good for your heart rate, can be bad for your hearing.
  • Listening to music with earbuds. This one requires caution, more than protection. Whether your music is going directly into your ears, how loud it is playing, and how long you’re listening to it are all things you should pay attention to. Think about using headphones that cancel out outside noise so you don’t need to turn up the sound to damaging levels.

These illustrations might give you a good baseline. If there is any doubt, though, use protection. Instead of leaving your ears exposed to future harm, in most circumstances, it’s better to protect your hearing. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.

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