Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

Knowing you should protect your hearing is one thing. It’s a different story to know when to safeguard your hearing. It’s more difficult than, for example, knowing when you need sunblock. (Is it sunny and will you be outdoors? Then you need sunscreen.) It isn’t even as easy as recognizing when to use eye protection (Using a hammer? Cutting some wood or working with hazardous chemicals? Use eye protection).

When dealing with when to wear 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 specified place or activity is hazardous.

A Tale of Risk Analysis

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 possibility of lasting sensorineural hearing loss. Let’s take some examples to prove the point:

  • Person A goes to a very loud rock concert. The concert lasts about 3 hours.
  • Person B has a landscaping company. After mowing lawns all day, she goes home to quietly read a book.
  • Person C is an office worker.

You may think the hearing hazard is greater 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 hazardous to her ears would be sensible.

Person B (let’s just call her Betty), on the other hand, is exposed to less noise. There’s no ringing in her ears. So her ears must be safer, right? Not really. Because Betty is pushing that mower all day. In reality, the damage accumulates a little at a time despite the fact that they don’t ring out. Even moderate sounds, if experienced with enough frequency, can injury your ears.

Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less obvious. Most individuals realize that you should protect your ears while running machines such as a lawnmower. But although Chris has a relatively quiet job, her long morning commute on the train every day is fairly loud. Also, while she works at her desk all day, she listens to her music through earbuds. Does she need to consider protection?

When is it Time to Worry About Safeguarding Your Ears?

The standard rule of thumb is that if you have to raise your voice to be heard, your surroundings are loud enough to do damage to your ears. And if your environment is that loud, you should think about using earmuffs or earplugs.

The cutoff needs to be 85dB if you want to get clinical. Noises above 85dB have the potential, over time, to result in injury, so you need to give consideration to wearing hearing protection in those scenarios.

Your ears don’t have a built-in decibel meter to alert you when you get to that 85dB level, so countless hearing professionals suggest getting special apps for your phone. These apps can tell you when the ambient sound is nearing a hazardous level, and you can take suitable steps.

A Few Examples

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

  • Listening to music with earbuds. OK, this doesn’t call for protection but does require caution. Pay attention to how loud the music is, how long you’re listening to it, and whether it’s going directly into your ears. Consider getting headphones that cancel out outside noise so you don’t need to turn up the volume to damaging levels.
  • Exercise: Your morning cycling class is a great example. Or maybe your evening workout session? You may think about wearing hearing protection to each one. Those instructors who use sound systems and microphones (and loud music) to motivate you might be good for your heart rate, but all that volume is bad for your ears.
  • Driving & Commuting: Spending all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or maybe you’re just waiting downtown for work or boarding the train. The constant noise of living in the city, when experienced for between 6 and 8 hours a day, can cause injury to your ears over the long haul, specifically if you’re turning up your music to hear it over the din.
  • Household Chores: We already talked about how something as simple as mowing the lawn, when done often enough, can require hearing protection. Chores, including mowing, are probably something you don’t even think about, but they can cause hearing impairment.
  • Operating Power Tools: You know that working every day at your factory job will necessitate hearing protection. But what if you’re simply working in your garage all day? Most hearing specialists will recommend you wear hearing protection when operating power tools, even if it’s just on a hobbyist basis.

A good baseline may be established by these examples. When in doubt, however, you should defer to protection. Compared to leaving your ears exposed to future damage, in most situations, it’s better to protect your ears. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.

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