It’s one thing to realize that you need to protect your ears. It’s a different story to know when to safeguard your ears. It’s harder than, for example, recognizing when you need sunblock. (Are you going outside? Is there sunlight? You need to be wearing sunblock.) Even recognizing when you need eye protection is easier (Handling hazardous chemicals? Doing some construction? You need to wear eye protection).
When it comes to when to use hearing protection, there seems to be a large grey area which can be dangerous. Often, we’ll defer to our normal inclination to avoid hearing protection unless we’re given information that a specific activity or place is hazardous.
Determining The Risks
In general, we’re not very good at assessing risk, especially when it comes to something as intangible as damage to the ears or the probability of lasting sensorineural hearing loss. Let’s take some examples to demonstrate the situation:
- A very loud rock concert is attended by person A. 3 hours is around the length of the concert.
- A landscaping business is run by person B. She spends a significant amount of time mowing lawns, then she goes home to a quiet house and reads.
- Person C works in an office.
You might believe the hearing danger is higher for person A (let’s just call her Ann). Ann leaves the show with her ears ringing, and she’ll spend the majority of the next day, trying to hear herself talk. It seems reasonable to assume that Ann’s recreation was very hazardous.
Person B (let’s call her Betty), on the other hand, is subjected to less noise. Her ears don’t ring. So her hearing must be safer, right? Well, not quite. Because Betty is mowing every day. In reality, the damage builds up a little at a time although they don’t ring out. Even moderate noises, if experienced with enough frequency, can harm your ears.
What’s occurring with person C (let’s call her Chris) is even more difficult to make sense of. Lawnmowers come with instructions that indicate the hazards of continued exposure to noise. But even though Chris works in a quiet office, she has a really noisy, hour-long commute every day on the train. Additionally, she sits at her desk and listens to music through earbuds. Is protection something she should consider?
When You Should Think About Protecting Your Hearing
Generally speaking, you need to turn down the volume if you have to shout to be heard. And if your environment is that loud, you should think about using earmuffs or earplugs.
The limit needs to be 85dB if you want to get clinical. Noises above 85dB have the potential, over time, to lead to injury, so in those circumstances, you should think about using hearing protection.
Your ears don’t have a built-in sound level meter to warn you when you get to that 85dB level, so many hearing professionals suggest downloading special apps for your phone. These apps can let you know when the surrounding sound is approaching a hazardous level, and you can take proper steps.
A Few Examples
Your phone may not be with you anywhere you go even if you do get the app. So a few examples of when to protect your ears may help you develop a good baseline. Here we go:
- Household Chores: Even mowing a lawn, as previously stated, requires hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a great example of the sort of household job that could cause damage to your hearing but that you most likely won’t think about all that often.
- Working With Power Tools: You recognize that working every day at your factory job is going to require hearing protection. But how about the hobbyist building in his workshop? Even if it’s just a hobby, hearing specialists recommend wearing 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 taking the 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 extra damage caused by turning up your music to drown out the city noise.
- Exercise: You know your morning cycling class? Or maybe your nighttime workout session? You may think about wearing hearing protection to each. The high volume from instructors who play loud music and microphones for motivation, though it might be good for your heart rate, can be bad for your ears.
- Listening to music with earbuds. OK, this doesn’t call for protection but does require caution. 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 should pay attention to. Think about using headphones that cancel out outside noise so you don’t need to crank up the volume to dangerous levels.
A strong baseline might be established by these examples. If there is any doubt, though, use protection. In the majority of cases, it’s better to over-protect your ears than to leave them exposed to possible harm down the road. Protect today, hear tomorrow.