Knowing you need to safeguard your hearing is one thing. It’s another matter to know when to protect your ears. It’s not as straight forward as, for example, recognizing when to wear sunblock. (Is the sun out and will you be outdoors? Then you need sunscreen.) It isn’t even as simple as knowing when to wear eye protection (Handling dangerous chemicals? Doing some building? You need to wear eye protection).
It can feel as though there’s a large grey area when addressing when to use ear protection, and that can be detrimental. Often, we’ll defer to our normal tendency to avoid hearing protection unless we have information that a particular place or activity is dangerous.
A Tale of Risk Evaluation
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 possibility 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 about 3 hours.
- A landscaping company is run by person B. After mowing lawns all day, she goes home and quietly reads a book.
- Person C is an office worker.
You may believe the hearing danger is higher for person A (let’s just call her Ann). Ann leaves the show with ringing ears, and she’ll spend most of the next day, struggling to hear herself talk. Assuming Ann’s activity was risky to her hearing would be sensible.
Person B (let’s just call her Betty), on the other hand, is exposed to less noise. Her ears don’t ring. So it has to be safer for her ears, right? Not necessarily. Because Betty is mowing every day. The truth is, the damage accumulates a little at a time although they don’t ring out. Even moderate sounds, if experienced with enough frequency, can injury your hearing.
Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less evident. Lawnmowers come with instructions that emphasize the dangers of ongoing exposure to noise. But despite the fact that Chris has a relatively quiet job, her long morning commute on the train each day is quite loud. Additionally, while she works at her desk all day, she listens to her music through earbuds. Is protection something she should consider?
When You Should be Concerned About Safeguarding Your Hearing
The normal rule of thumb is that if you have to raise your voice in order to be heard, your surroundings are loud enough to do harm to your hearing. And if your environment is that noisy, you should think about using earplugs or earmuffs.
So to put this a bit more scientifically, you need to use 85dB as your cutoff. Sounds above 85dB have the potential, over time, to lead to injury, so you should give consideration to wearing hearing protection in those circumstances.
Your ears don’t have a built-in decibel meter to notify you when you reach that 85dB level, so many hearing specialists suggest obtaining special apps for your phone. These apps can inform you when the ambient noise is approaching a dangerous level, and you can take appropriate steps.
A Few Examples
Your phone might not be with you anywhere you go even if you do get the app. So a few examples of when to protect your ears might help you establish a good baseline. Here we go:
- Commuting and Driving: Spending all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or perhaps you’re taking a subway after waiting for a little while downtown. The noise of living in a city is bad enough for your hearing, not to mention the added injury caused by cranking up your music to drown out the city noise.
- Residential Chores: Even mowing a lawn, as previously stated, necessitates hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a good example of the type of household chore that might cause injury to your ears but that you probably don’t think about all that often.
- Exercise: Your morning spin class is a good example. Or perhaps your daily elliptical session. All of these examples might require hearing protection. Those trainers who make use of sound systems and microphones (and loud music) to motivate you may be good for your heart rate, but all that volume is bad for your hearing.
- Working With Power Tools: You understand you will need hearing protection if you work all day in a factory. But how about the hobbyist building in his garage? Most hearing specialists will recommend you wear hearing protection when working with power tools, even if it’s only on a hobbyist basis.
- Listening to music with earbuds. This one calls for caution, more than 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 smart choice to avoid having to turn the volume way up.
These examples may give you a suitable baseline. When in doubt, though, you should choose protection. Compared to leaving your ears exposed to future injury, in most cases, it’s better to protect your hearing. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.