Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

It’s one thing to recognize that you need to safeguard your hearing. Knowing when to safeguard your ears is a different story. It’s not as easy as, for example, recognizing when to wear sunblock. (Are you going to go outdoors? Is there sunlight? You should be wearing sunblock.) Even recognizing when you need eye protection is simpler (Working with hazardous chemicals? Doing some building? You need to wear eye protection).

When it comes to when to use hearing protection, there seems to be a huge grey area which can be dangerous. Frequently, we’ll defer to our normal tendency to avoid hearing protection unless we have information that a specific place or activity is dangerous.

Risk Assessments

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

  • Person A attends a very loud rock concert. 3 hours is about how long the concert lasts.
  • Person B runs a landscaping company. She spends a significant amount of time mowing lawns, then goes home to a quiet house and reads a book.
  • Person C works in an office.

You might believe the hearing danger is higher for person A (let’s just call her Ann). For most of the next day, her ears will still be ringing from the loud concert. Presuming Ann’s activity was dangerous to her hearing would be reasonable.

Person B (let’s call her Betty), on the other hand, is exposed to less noise. There’s no ringing in her ears. So her ears must be less hazardous, right? Not really. Because Betty is mowing every day. Actually, the damage accumulates a little bit at a time even though they don’t ring out. If experienced on a regular basis, even moderately loud sounds can have a detrimental affect on your ears.

What’s going on with person C (let’s call her Chris) is even harder to make sense of. Most individuals realize that you should safeguard your hearing while running machines like a lawnmower. But even though Chris has a fairly quiet job, her long morning commute on the train each day is quite loud. Additionally, she sits behind her desk and listens to music through earbuds. Does she need to think about protection?

When You Should Worry About Protecting Your Ears

The normal rule of thumb is that if you have to raise your voice in order to be heard, your environment is loud enough to do harm to your hearing. And you should think about using earplugs or earmuffs if your environment is that loud.

If you want to think about this a bit more clinically, you need to use 85dB as your limit. Sounds above 85dB have the ability to cause injury over time, so in those circumstances, you need to think about wearing hearing protection.

Your ears don’t have their own sound level meter to warn you when you get to that 85dB level, so many hearing specialists suggest obtaining special apps for your phone. These apps can show you when the ambient sound is nearing a dangerous level, and you can take appropriate steps.

A Few Examples

Your phone might not be with you wherever you go even if you do get the app. So a few examples of when to protect your ears might help you formulate a good baseline. Here we go:

  • Listening to music with earbuds. This one calls for caution, not 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 need to give consideration to. Consider getting headphones that cancel out outside noise so you don’t need to turn up the sound to damaging levels.
  • Household Chores: Even mowing a lawn, as previously stated, calls for hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a great illustration of the sort of household chore that might cause injury to your ears but that you probably won’t think about all that often.
  • Driving & Commuting: Driving all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or maybe you’re riding the subway after waiting for a while downtown. The noise of living in the city is bad enough for your ears, not to mention the added damage caused by cranking up your tunes to drown out the city noise.
  • Exercise: You know your morning spin class? Or maybe your nighttime yoga session? All of these cases might call for ear protection. Those instructors who use microphones and sound systems (and loud music) to motivate you may be good for your heart rate, but all that volume is bad for your ears.
  • Operating Power Tools: You understand you will require hearing protection if you work all day in a factory. But what if you’re just puttering around your garage all day? Even if it’s only a hobby, hearing specialists suggest using hearing protection if you’re utilizing power equipment.

These examples might give you a suitable baseline. When in doubt, however, you should choose protection. Instead of leaving your ears exposed to future damage, in most situations, it’s better to protect your hearing. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.

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