Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

Knowing you should protect your ears is one thing. Knowing when to protect your ears is another matter. It’s not as simple as, for example, knowing when to wear sunblock. (Is the sun out and will you be outside? Then you need sunblock.) It’s not even as easy as recognizing when to use eye protection (Handling dangerous chemicals? Doing some construction? You need eye protection).

It can feel as though there’s a significant grey area when addressing when to wear hearing protection, and that can be dangerous. Often, we’ll defer to our normal tendency to avoid hearing protection unless we have information that a specified place or activity 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 possibility of permanent sensorineural hearing loss. Here are some examples to prove the point:

  • Person A goes to a very loud rock concert. The concert lasts about 3 hours.
  • Person B runs a landscaping company. After mowing lawns all day, she goes home to quietly read a book.
  • Person C works in an office.

You may think that person A (let’s call her Ann, to be a little less formal) might be in more hearing danger. Ann leaves the concert with ringing ears, and she’ll spend most of the next day, trying to hear herself talk. It seems reasonable to presume that Ann’s activity was rather risky.

Person B (let’s just call her Betty), on the other hand, is subjected to less noise. There’s no ringing in her ears. So it must be safer for her ears, right? Well, not really. Because Betty is mowing all day. Actually, the damage builds up a little bit at a time even though they don’t ring out. Even moderate noise, if experienced regularly, can damage your ears.

Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less evident. Lawnmowers come with instructions that emphasize the hazards of long-term exposure to noise. But despite the fact that Chris has a fairly quiet job, her long morning commute through the city each day is rather loud. Also, even though she works behind her desk all day, she listens to her music through earbuds. Does she need to give some thought to protection?

When You Should be Concerned About Safeguarding Your Hearing

Generally speaking, you need to turn the volume down if you have to raise your voice to be heard. And if your surroundings are that loud, you need to consider using earmuffs or earplugs.

If you want to think about this a little more scientifically, you should use 85dB as your limit. Noises above 85dB have the capacity, over time, to cause injury, so in those scenarios, you should think about using hearing protection.

Most hearing specialists suggest using a specialized app to keep track of noise levels so you will be aware when the 85dB has been reached. You will be able to take the correct steps to protect your ears because these apps will inform you when the sound is reaching a hazardous level.

A Few Examples

Even if you do download that app and bring it with you, your phone may not be with you wherever you go. So a few examples of when to protect your ears might help you establish a good baseline. Here we go:

  • Listening to music with earbuds. OK, this doesn’t call for protection but does require care. Pay attention to how loud the music is, how long you’re playing it, and whether it’s going directly into your ears. Consider getting headphones that cancel out outside sound so you don’t have to crank up the sound to damaging levels.
  • Exercise: Your morning spin class is a great example. Or perhaps your daily elliptical session. You might consider wearing hearing protection to each one. 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 loudness is bad for your ears.
  • Residential Chores: Even mowing a lawn, as previously stated, requires hearing protection. Chores, including mowing, are probably something you don’t even think about, but they can lead to hearing damage.
  • Driving & Commuting: Driving all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or maybe you’re riding the subway after waiting for a little while downtown. The constant noise of living in the city, when experienced for 6-8 hours a day, can cause injury to your hearing over the long term, particularly if you’re turning up your music to hear it over the commotion.
  • Operating Power Tools: You recognize that working all day at your factory job is going to call for ear protection. But how about the hobbyist building in his workshop? Most hearing professionals will suggest you wear hearing protection when operating power tools, even if it’s just on a hobbyist level.

A strong baseline might be researched by these examples. If there is any doubt, though, use protection. In most cases, it’s better to over-protect your ears than to leave them subject to possible damage down the road. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.

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