It’s one thing to recognize that you need to protect your ears. Knowing when to safeguard your ears is another matter. It’s not as easy as, for example, determining when to use sunblock. (Are you going to go outside? Is the sun out? You need to be wearing sunscreen.) Even knowing when you need eye protection is easier (Using a hammer? Cutting some wood or working with hazardous chemicals? Wear eye protection).
With regards to when to wear hearing protection, there seems to be a large grey area which can be risky. Unless we have specific information that some place or activity is hazardous we tend to take the easy path which is to avoid the issue entirely.
A Tale of Risk Assessment
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 permanent sensorineural hearing loss. To prove the point, here are some examples:
- Person A attends a very loud rock concert. The concert lasts around 3 hours.
- Person B owns a landscaping business. After mowing lawns all day, she goes home to quietly read a book.
- Person C is an office worker.
You might believe the hearing danger is higher for person A (let’s just call her Ann). Ann leaves the performance with her ears ringing, and she’ll spend most of the next day, struggling to hear herself speak. It seems reasonable to assume that Ann’s recreation was very hazardous.
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 ears must be less hazardous, right? Well, not really. Because Betty is mowing all day. The truth is, the damage accumulates a little at a time despite the fact that they don’t ring out. If experienced on a regular basis, even moderately loud noises can have a damaging affect on your hearing.
Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less clear. Lawnmowers have instructions that emphasize the risks of persistent exposure to noise. But even though Chris has a relatively quiet job, her long morning commute on the train each day is quite loud. What’s more, she sits behind her desk and listens to music through earbuds. Is protection something she should consider?
When You Should Worry About Protecting Your Ears
The normal guideline is that if you need to raise your voice in order to be heard, your surroundings are loud enough to do harm to your ears. And if your environment is that noisy, you really should think about using earplugs or earmuffs.
So to put this a bit more scientifically, you should use 85dB as your cutoff. Sounds above 85dB have the ability, over time, to lead to damage, so you should think about using ear protection in those situations.
Your ears don’t have their own sound level meter to warn you when you get to that 85dB level, so most hearing professionals suggest getting specialized apps for your phone. You will be able to take the required steps to protect your hearing because these apps will tell you when the sound is getting to a hazardous level.
A Few Examples
Even if you do get that app and bring it with you, your phone might not be with you everywhere you go. So a few examples of when to safeguard your ears might help you formulate a good standard. Here we go:
- Listening to music with earbuds. This one calls for caution, not protection. Pay attention to how loud the music is, how long you’re playing it, and whether it’s going directly into your ears. Noise-canceling headphones are a great choice to avoid having to turn the volume way up.
- Working With Power Tools: You know that working every day at your factory job will call for hearing protection. But how about the hobbyist building in his garage? Even if it’s just a hobby, hearing specialists recommend using hearing protection if you’re working with power equipment.
- Commuting and Driving: Driving all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or maybe you’re just waiting downtown for work or boarding the subway. The noise of living in a city is bad enough for your ears, not to mention the extra injury caused by cranking up your tunes to drown out the city noise.
- Residential Chores: Even mowing the lawn, as previously explained, requires hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a great illustration of the type of household task that might cause damage to your ears but that you most likely won’t think about all that often.
- Exercise: Your morning spin class is a good example. Or even your evening Pilates session? Each of these examples could call for hearing protection. Those trainers who make use of 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.
A good baseline might be established by these examples. If there is any doubt, though, wear protection. Instead of leaving your ears exposed to future injury, in most circumstances, it’s better to protect your ears. Protect today, hear tomorrow.