Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

It’s one thing to realize that you should protect your hearing. It’s a different story to know when to safeguard your hearing. It’s more challenging than, for example, recognizing when you need sunscreen. (Is it sunny and will you be outdoors? Then you need sunblock.) It’s not even as easy as determining when to use eye protection (Working with dangerous chemicals? Doing some building? You need eye protection).

With regards to when to use hearing protection, there seems to be a big grey area which can be dangerous. Often, we’ll defer to our normal tendency to avoid hearing protection unless we’re given information that a specified activity or place is hazardous.

A Tale of Risk Evaluation

In general, we’re not very good at assessing risk, especially when it comes to something as intangible as lasting hearing damage or 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.
  • Person B owns 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 works in an office.

You may think the hearing hazard is greater for person A (let’s just call her Ann). For the majority of the next day, her ears will still be screeching from the loud show. Assuming Ann’s activity was hazardous to her hearing would be fair.

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 must be less hazardous for her ears, right? Well, not really. Because Betty is mowing all day. The truth is, the damage accumulates a little at a time although they don’t ring out. Even moderate noise, if experienced regularly, can injury your ears.

What’s going on with person C (let’s call her Chris) is even tougher to sort out. Most individuals realize that you need to protect your ears while using equipment such as a lawnmower. But despite the fact that Chris has a relatively quiet job, her long morning commute on the train each day is quite loud. What’s more, she sits behind her desk and listens to music through earbuds. Does she need to consider protection?

When You Should Think About Safeguarding Your Ears

The general guideline is that if you need to raise your voice to be heard, your environment is noisy enough to do damage to your ears. And if your environment is that loud, you really should think about wearing earmuffs or earplugs.

If you want to think about this a bit more scientifically, you need to use 85dB as your limit. Noises above 85dB have the ability, over time, to result in damage, so in those scenarios, you should think about wearing ear protection.

Your ears don’t have a built-in sound level meter to alert you when you reach that 85dB level, so many hearing specialists suggest getting special apps for your phone. These apps can let you know when the ambient sound is getting close to a dangerous level, and you can take proper steps.

A Few Examples

Your phone might not be with you wherever you go even if you do get the app. So we may establish a good baseline with a couple of examples of when to protect our ears. Here we go:

  • Listening to music with earbuds. OK, this doesn’t call for protection but does require caution. 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 pay attention to. Consider using headphones that cancel out outside sound so you don’t have to turn up the volume to damaging levels.
  • Every day Chores: We already mentioned how something as simple as mowing the lawn, when done often enough, can call for hearing protection. Chores, such as mowing, are probably something you don’t even think about, but they can lead to hearing damage.
  • Using Power Tools: You know that working every day at your factory job will require hearing protection. But how about the enthusiast building in his garage? Even if it’s just a hobby, hearing specialists suggest using hearing protection if you’re utilizing power equipment.
  • Exercise: Your morning spin class is a good example. Or perhaps your daily elliptical session. You might think about 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 volume is bad for your hearing.
  • Driving & Commuting: Spending all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or maybe you’re just hanging around downtown for work or getting on the subway. The noise of living in a city is bad enough for your hearing, not to mention the extra damage caused by cranking up your music to drown out the city noise.

These examples might give you a suitable baseline. When in doubt, though, you should defer to protection. In the majority of 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.