Realizing you should protect your hearing is one thing. Recognizing when to safeguard your ears is a different story. It’s not as simple as, for example, recognizing when to use sunblock. (Are you going outdoors? Is there sunlight? You should be using sunblock.) Even knowing when you need eye protection is simpler (Working with hazardous chemicals? Doing some building? You need eye protection).
It can feel like there’s a large grey area when dealing with when to wear ear protection, and that can be dangerous. Unless we have particular knowledge that some place or activity is hazardous we tend to take the easy road which is to avoid the problem entirely.
Evaluating The Risks
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 risk of lasting sensorineural hearing loss. To demonstrate the situation, check out some examples:
- A very loud rock concert is attended by person A. The concert lasts approximately 3 hours.
- A landscaping company is run by person B. After mowing lawns all day, she goes home to quietly read a book.
- Person C is an office worker.
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 show with ringing ears, and she’ll spend the majority of the next day, struggling to hear herself speak. It seems rational to presume that Ann’s activity was very risky.
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 it has to be less hazardous for her hearing, right? Not really. Because Betty is mowing every day. So even though her ears don’t ring out with pain, the damage accrues little by little. Even moderate noise, if experienced regularly, can damage your hearing.
What’s occurring with person C (let’s call her Chris) is even tougher to sort out. Lawnmowers have instructions that indicate the hazards of ongoing exposure to noise. But while Chris works in a quiet office, she has a really noisy, hour-long commute every day through the city. Also, even though she works behind her desk all day, she listens to her music through earbuds. Does she need to think about protection?
When is it Time to Start to Think About Protecting Your Hearing?
The standard rule of thumb is that if you have to raise your voice in order to be heard, your surroundings are loud enough to do injure to your hearing. And if your environment is that loud, you should think about using earplugs or earmuffs.
The limit needs to be 85dB if you want to be scientific. Sounds above 85dB have the ability, over time, to result in injury, so you should give consideration to using ear protection in those scenarios.
Your ears don’t have their own sound level meter to warn you when you get to that 85dB level, so most hearing specialists suggest downloading special apps for your phone. You will be able to take the required steps to protect your ears because these apps will tell you when the sound is reaching a dangerous level.
A Few Examples
Even if you do get that app and bring it with you, your phone may not be with you wherever you go. So a few examples of when to safeguard your ears might help you establish a good standard. Here we go:
- Household Chores: We already talked about how something as basic as mowing the lawn, when done often enough, can require hearing protection. Chores, such as mowing, are probably something you don’t even think about, but they can cause hearing impairment.
- Exercise: You know your morning cycling class? Or maybe your daily elliptical session. You may think about wearing hearing protection to each one. Those instructors 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 hearing.
- Commuting and Driving: Driving all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or maybe you’re just hanging out downtown for work or boarding the subway. The constant noise of city living, when experienced for 6-8 hours a day, can cause damage to your ears over the long term, particularly if you’re cranking up your music to hear it over the din.
- Operating Power Tools: You understand you will require hearing protection if you work every day in a factory. But how about the enthusiast building in his workshop? Even if it’s only a hobby, hearing specialists suggest wearing hearing protection if you’re using power equipment.
- 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 should give consideration to. Noise-canceling headphones are a great choice to avoid having to turn the volume way up.
A strong baseline might be researched by these examples. When in doubt, however, you should defer to protection. Compared to leaving your ears exposed to future damage, in most instances, it’s better to protect your ears. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.