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Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

Understanding you should safeguard your hearing is one thing. It’s another matter to know when to safeguard your hearing. It’s more difficult than, let’s say, recognizing when you need sunblock. (Is the sun out and are you going to be outside? Then you need sunblock.) It’s not even as simple as determining when to use eye protection (Doing some hammering? Cutting some wood or working with dangerous chemicals? Use 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 natural tendency to avoid hearing protection unless we have information that a specific place or activity is hazardous.

A Tale of Risk Analysis

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 risk of lasting sensorineural hearing loss. To demonstrate the situation, check out some examples:

  • A very loud rock concert is attended by person A. 3 hours is approximately how long the concert lasts.
  • Person B runs a landscaping company. She spends a significant amount of time mowing lawns, then goes home to a quiet house and reads a book.
  • Person C is an office worker.

You might think the hearing hazard 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 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. Her ears don’t ring. So it has to be less hazardous for her hearing, right? Not necessarily. Because Betty is pushing that mower all day. In reality, the damage accumulates a little at a time despite the fact that 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 obvious. Lawnmowers have instructions that emphasize the risks of ongoing exposure to noise. But even though Chris works in a quiet office, she has a very noisy, hour-long commute each day through the city. Additionally, she sits behind her desk and listens to music through earbuds. Does she need to give some thought to protection?

When is it Time to be Concerned About Protecting Your Ears?

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

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

Your ears don’t have their own decibel meter to notify you when you get to that 85dB level, so many hearing professionals suggest getting special apps for your phone. These apps can let you know when the ambient sound is approaching a hazardous 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 safeguard your ears may help you formulate a good standard. Here we go:

  • Exercise: Your morning spin class is a good example. Or maybe your daily elliptical session. You may think about wearing hearing protection to each one. The high volume from trainers who play loud music and microphones for motivation, though it may be good for your heart rate, can be bad for your hearing.
  • Using Power Tools: You know that working all day at your factory job will necessitate hearing 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.
  • Domestic Chores: Even mowing the lawn, as previously mentioned, calls for hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a good illustration of the kind of household job that might cause damage to your hearing but that you most likely won’t think about all that often.
  • Commuting and Driving: Do you drive for Lyft or Uber? Or perhaps you’re just hanging out downtown for work or getting on the train. The constant noise of city living, when experienced for 6-8 hours every day, can cause damage to your ears over the long haul, especially if you’re cranking up your music to hear it over the din.
  • Listening to music with earbuds. This one requires caution, not protection. 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 give consideration to. Noise-canceling headphones are a good choice to avoid needing to turn the volume way up.

A good baseline may be established by these examples. If there is any doubt, however, wear protection. Rather than leaving your ears exposed to future injury, in most situations, it’s better to protect your hearing. Protect today, hear tomorrow.

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