It’s one thing to know that you should protect your hearing. It’s another matter to know when to protect your hearing. It’s harder than, for instance, knowing when you need sunblock. (Are you going outdoors? Is there sunlight? You need to be using sunscreen.) Even knowing when you need eye protection is simpler (Working with hazardous chemicals? Doing some construction? 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 risky. Unless we have particular knowledge that some activity or place is hazardous we tend to take the easy path which is to avoid the problem entirely.
In general, we’re not very good at assessing risk, especially when it comes to something as intangible as lasting hearing problems or hearing loss. Here are some examples to demonstrate the situation:
- Person A goes to a very loud rock concert. 3 hours is around how long the concert lasts.
- Person B has a landscaping business. 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 that person A (let’s call her Ann, to be a little less formal) may be in more hearing danger. Ann leaves the performance with ringing ears, and she’ll spend most of the next day, struggling to hear herself speak. Presuming Ann’s activity was risky to her ears would be sensible.
The noise that person B (let’s just call her Betty), is subjected to is not as loud. There’s no ringing in her ears. So her hearing must be less hazardous, right? Not really. Because Betty is mowing all day. So although her ears don’t ring out with pain, the damage builds up slowly. Even moderate noise, if experienced with enough frequency, can injury your hearing.
What’s going on with person C (let’s call her Chris) is even more difficult to sort out. Lawnmowers come with instructions that point out the dangers of continued exposure to noise. But while Chris works in a quiet office, she has a very noisy, hour-long commute every day through the city. Also, even though she works at her desk all day, she listens to her music through earbuds. Is protection something she should consider?
When is it Time to Worry About Safeguarding Your Ears?
Generally speaking, you need to turn the volume down if you have to shout to be heard. And you really should consider using earplugs or earmuffs if your surroundings are that noisy.
The limit should be 85dB if you want to be clinical. Sounds above 85dB have the potential, over time, to cause injury, so in those circumstances, you need to think about wearing ear protection.
Your ears don’t have a built-in sound level meter to warn you when you get to that 85dB level, so countless hearing specialists suggest downloading special apps for your phone. These apps can inform you when the surrounding noise is nearing a dangerous level, and you can take suitable steps.
A Few Examples
Even if you do get that app and take it with you, your phone might not be with you wherever you go. So we might formulate a good baseline with a couple of examples of when to safeguard our ears. Here we go:
- Listening to music with earbuds. This one requires 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. Noise-canceling headphones are a good choice to prevent having to turn the volume way up.
- Household Chores: We already talked about 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 task that could cause harm to your hearing but that you probably don’t think about all that often.
- Operating Power Tools: You understand you will want hearing protection if you work all day in a factory. But how about the enthusiast building in his garage? Most hearing professionals will suggest you use hearing protection when working with power tools, even if it’s only on a hobbyist basis.
- Driving & Commuting: Do you drive for Lyft or Uber? Or perhaps you’re taking the subway after waiting for a 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 daily elliptical session. You might consider wearing hearing protection to each. Those trainers 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.
These illustrations may give you a good baseline. When in doubt, though, you should choose protection. In the majority of cases, it’s better to over-protect your ears than to leave them subject to possible harm in the future. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.