It’s one thing to realize that you need to protect your ears. Recognizing when to protect your ears is a different story. It’s more challenging than, for instance, knowing when you need sunblock. (Is it sunny and will you be outside? Then you need sunscreen.) Even recognizing when you need eye protection is simpler (Working with hazardous chemicals? Doing some construction? You need eye protection).
With regards to when to use hearing protection, there seems to be a big grey area which can be risky. Usually, we’ll defer to our normal inclination to avoid hearing protection unless we have information that a particular activity or place 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 injury to the ears or the possibility of permanent sensorineural hearing loss. Let’s take some examples to demonstrate the situation:
- A very loud rock concert is attended by person A. The concert lasts roughly 3 hours.
- A landscaping business is run by person B. After mowing lawns all day, she goes home and quietly reads a book.
- Person C works in an office.
You may presume that person A (let’s call her Ann, to be a little less clinical) may be in more hearing danger. For most of the next day, her ears will still be ringing from the loud performance. It seems fair to presume that Ann’s recreation was rather risky.
Person B (let’s call her Betty), on the other hand, is subjected to less noise. There’s no ringing in her ears. So her ears must be safer, right? Not really. Because Betty is pushing that mower all day. So even though her ears don’t ring out with pain, the harm accrues gradually. If experienced too often, even moderately loud sounds can have a damaging affect on your ears.
Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less clear. The majority of people understand that you should safeguard your hearing while using machines such as a lawnmower. But even though Chris works in a quiet office, she has a really noisy, hour-long commute every day through the city. Additionally, even though she works behind her desk all day, she listens to her music through earbuds. Does she need to consider protection?
When You Should Think About Protecting Your Ears
Generally, you should turn down the volume if you have to raise your voice to be heard. And if your surroundings are that noisy, you should consider wearing earplugs or earmuffs.
The cutoff needs to be 85dB if you want to get clinical. Sounds above 85dB have the capacity to cause damage over time, so in those situation, you should consider using ear protection.
Most hearing professionals advise making use of a special app to keep track of decibel levels so you will be cognizant of when the 85dB has been reached. These apps can let you know when the surrounding noise is approaching a dangerous level, and you can take appropriate steps.
A Few Examples
Even if you do download that app and take it with you, your phone may not be with you everywhere you go. So a few examples of when to safeguard your ears may help you develop a good baseline. Here we go:
- Listening to music with earbuds. OK, this doesn’t call for protection but does require care. Whether your music is playing directly into your ears, how loud it’s playing, and how long you’re listening to it are all things you should pay attention to. Noise-canceling headphones are a good choice to steer clear of having to turn the volume way up.
- Exercise: Your morning spin class is a good example. Or even your nighttime yoga session? Each of these examples might require hearing protection. Those instructors who make use of sound systems and microphones (and loud music) to motivate you might be good for your heart rate, but all that volume is bad for your ears.
- Every day Chores: Even mowing the lawn, as previously stated, calls for hearing protection. Chores, including mowing, are most likely something you don’t even think about, but they can lead to hearing impairment.
- Driving & Commuting: Driving all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or maybe you’re riding a subway after waiting for a while downtown. The noise of living in the city is bad enough for your hearing, not to mention the added damage caused by turning up your tunes to drown out the city noise.
- Operating Power Tools: You recognize that working all day at your factory job will require ear protection. But what if you’re just puttering around your garage all day? Most hearing professionals will suggest you use hearing protection when working with power tools, even if it’s just on a hobbyist level.
These examples might give you a suitable baseline. When in doubt, however, you should choose protection. In most cases, it’s better to over-protect your hearing than to leave them subject to possible damage in the future. Protect today, hear tomorrow.