What’s a Safe Listening Volume?

Volume knob set to a safe level that won't harm your hearing.

Have you ever gone to the beach and noticed one of those “Beware of Shark” signs? It’s not hard to understand that you shouldn’t disregard a caution like that. You might even reconsider swimming at all with a sign like that (if the warning is written in big red letters that’s especially true). Inexplicably, though, it’s harder for people to pay attention to warnings concerning their hearing in the same way.

Recent research has found that millions of individuals disregard warning signs regarding their hearing (these studies specifically considered populations in the United Kingdom, but there’s no doubt the problem is more global than that). Awareness is a huge part of the problem. To be afraid of sharks is fairly intuitive. But fear of loud noise? And the real question is, what’s too loud?

We’re Surrounded by Hazardously Loud Sounds

It’s not only the machine shop floor or rock concert that are dangerous to your ears (not to minimize the hearing risks of these situations). Many common sounds can be harmful. That’s because it’s not just the volume of a sound that presents a danger; it’s also the duration. Your hearing can be damaged with even low level sounds like dense city traffic if you’re exposed to it for more than a couple of hours at a time.

Broadly speaking, here’s an approximate outline of when loud becomes too loud:

  • 30 dB: This is the volume level you would find in normal conversation. You should be just fine at this volume for an indefinite time period.
  • 80 – 85 dB: This is the volume of heavy traffic, lawn equipment, or an air conditioning unit. After about two hours this level of sound becomes harmful.
  • 90 – 95 dB: A motorcycle is a practical illustration of this sound level. 50 minutes is enough to be harmful at this level of sound.
  • 100 dB: This is the amount of noise you may encounter at a mid-size sporting event or an approaching subway train (of course, this depends on the city). This volume can become dangerous after 15 minutes of exposure.
  • 110 dB: Do you ever turn the volume on your earpods up as high as it will go? That’s usually around this sound level on most smartphones. This amount of exposure is dangerous after only 5 minutes of exposure.
  • 120 dB and over: Immediate pain and injury can occur at or above this volume (think about an arena sized sporting event or rock concert).

How Loud is 85 Decibels?

Broadly speaking, you should regard anything 85 dB or above as putting your ears in the danger zone. But it can be hard to recognize how loud 85 dB is and that’s the issue. It’s not tangible the way that a shark is tangible.

And hearing cautions commonly get neglected for this reason when the sound environment isn’t loud enough to cause pain, this is especially true. Here are a couple of possible solutions:

  • Download an app: Your hearing can’t be immediately safeguarded with an app. But there are a number of free apps that can work as sound level monitors. It’s hard to assess what 85 dB feels like so your ears can be injured without you even realizing it. Using this app to keep track of sound levels, then, is the answer. Using this method will make it more instinctual to distinguish when you are going into the “danger zone”. (Or, the app will simply let you know when things get too loud).
  • Adequate signage and training: This particularly relates to the workplace. The significant risks of hearing loss can be reinforced by signage and training (and the benefits of protecting your hearing). Additionally, just how noisy your workspace is, can be clarified by signage. Helping employees know when hearing protection is recommended or necessary with proper training can be very useful.

When in Doubt: Protect

No signage or app will ever be perfect. So if you’re in doubt, take the time to safeguard your ears. Over a long enough period of time, noise damage will almost certainly create hearing problems. And it’s easier than it ever has been to damage your ears (it’s a simple matter of listening to your tunes too loudly).

If you’re listening to headphones all day, you should not increase the volume past the half way. If you keep cranking it up to hear your music over background noise you should find different headphones that have noise cancellation.

That’s why it’s more essential than ever to recognize when loud becomes too loud. And in order to do this, you need to raise your own awareness and knowledge level. It isn’t difficult to limit your exposure or at least wear ear protection. But you have to recognize when to do it.

That should be easier nowadays, too. Particularly now that you understand what to look for.

Think you might have hearing loss? Schedule an exam.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.

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