It’s one thing to realize that you need to safeguard your hearing. Knowing when to protect your ears is a different story. It’s not as straight forward as, for example, recognizing when to use sunscreen. (Are you going to go outdoors? Is there sunlight? You should be using sunscreen.) It’s not even as simple as recognizing when to wear eye protection (Handling hazardous chemicals? Doing some construction? You need to wear eye protection).
When dealing with when to use hearing protection, there seems to be a big grey area which can be dangerous. Unless we have particular information that some place or activity is hazardous we tend to take the easy path which is to avoid the issue altogether.
A Tale of Risk Evaluation
In general, we’re not very good at assessing risk, especially when it comes to something as intangible as injury to the ears or the risk of long term sensorineural hearing loss. Let’s take some examples to prove the point:
- Person A goes to a very loud rock concert. 3 hours is around the length of the concert.
- A landscaping company is run by person B. She spends a considerable amount of time mowing lawns, then she goes home to a quiet house and reads.
- Person C works in an office.
You may think 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 ringing from the loud performance. Presuming Ann’s activity was hazardous to her ears would be sensible.
The noise that person B (let’s just call her Betty), is subjected to is not as loud. Her ears don’t ring. So her hearing must be safer, right? Not really. Because Betty is pushing that mower all day. Actually, the damage builds up a little bit at a time even though they don’t ring out. Even moderate sounds, if experienced with enough frequency, can damage your ears.
Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less clear. Lawnmowers have instructions that point out the hazards of persistent exposure to noise. But even though Chris works in a quiet office, she has a really noisy, hour-long commute each day through the city. Additionally, even though she works behind her desk all day, she listens to her music through earbuds. Does she need to think about protection?
When You Should Worry About Safeguarding Your Ears
Normally, you should turn the volume down if you have to raise your voice to be heard. And if your surroundings are that loud, you really should think about using earmuffs or earplugs.
So to put this a little more scientifically, you should use 85dB as your cutoff. Noises above 85dB have the potential, over time, to result in damage, so you should think about wearing ear protection in those conditions.
Many hearing professionals recommend getting a specialized app to monitor noise levels so you will be aware when the 85dB has been reached. You will be capable of taking the necessary steps to safeguard your ears because these apps will tell you when the noise is approaching a dangerous volume.
A Few Examples
Your phone might not be with you anywhere you go even if you do download the app. So a few examples of when to protect your ears might help you develop a good baseline. Here we go:
- Operating Power Tools: You know that working every day at your factory job is going to call for ear protection. But how about the hobbyist building in his garage? Most hearing specialists will recommend you use hearing protection when using power tools, even if it’s just on a hobbyist level.
- Domestic Chores: We already mentioned how something as basic as mowing the lawn, when done frequently, can call for hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a great example of the type of household job that may cause harm to your hearing but that you probably won’t think about all that often.
- Listening to music with earbuds. OK, this doesn’t require protection but does require care. Whether your music is going directly into your ears, how loud it’s playing, and how long you’re listening to it are all things you need to pay attention to. Noise-canceling headphones are a great choice to avoid needing to turn the volume way up.
- Driving & Commuting: Do you drive for Lyft or Uber? Or maybe you’re riding a subway after waiting for a little while downtown. The noise of living in a city is bad enough for your ears, not to mention the added injury caused by turning up your music to drown out the city noise.
- Exercise: You know your morning cycling class? Or maybe your nighttime Pilates session? You may think about using hearing protection to each one. The loud volume from trainers who play loud music and microphones for motivation, though it may be good for your heart rate, can be bad for your hearing.
These examples may give you a suitable baseline. If there is any doubt, however, wear protection. In most cases, it’s better to over-protect your hearing than to leave them exposed to possible damage in the future. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.