Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

It’s one thing to recognize that you should safeguard your hearing. It’s a different story to know when to safeguard your hearing. It’s not as straight forward as, for example, knowing when to use sunscreen. (Is it sunny and will you be outside? Then you need sunblock.) Even recognizing when you need eye protection is easier (Using a hammer? Cutting some wood or working with hazardous chemicals? Use eye protection).

It can feel as though there’s a large grey area when dealing with when to use ear protection, and that can be risky. Unless we have particular knowledge that some activity or place is hazardous we tend to take the easy path which is to avoid the problem entirely.

A Tale of Risk Assessment

In general, we’re not very good at assessing risk, especially when it comes to something as intangible as permanent hearing problems or loss of hearing. To demonstrate the situation, here are some examples:

  • Person A attends a very loud rock concert. The concert lasts around 3 hours.
  • Person B owns 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 the hearing danger is higher for person A (let’s just call her Ann). For most of the next day, her ears will still be ringing from the loud concert. It seems rational to assume that Ann’s activity was quite hazardous.

Person B (let’s call her Betty), on the other hand, is exposed to less noise. Her ears don’t ring. So it must be less hazardous for her ears, right? Not necessarily. Because Betty is mowing every day. So although her ears don’t ring out with pain, the harm accrues gradually. If experienced on a regular basis, even moderately loud noise can have a harmful affect on your hearing.

What’s occurring with person C (let’s call her Chris) is even more difficult to sort out. The majority of people recognize that you need to safeguard your ears while running equipment like a lawnmower. But while Chris works in a quiet office, she has a very noisy, hour-long commute each day on the train. In addition, she sits behind her desk and listens to music through earbuds. Is protection something she should think about?

When is it Time to Start Thinking About Protecting Your Hearing?

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

So to put this a bit more scientifically, you need to use 85dB as your cutoff. Sounds above 85dB have the ability to result in damage over time, so in those circumstances, you need to consider wearing ear protection.

Many hearing specialists suggest using a special 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 necessary steps to protect your ears because these apps will tell you when the noise is getting to a harmful level.

A Few Examples

Your phone might not be with you anywhere you go even if you do download the app. So we might establish a good standard with a couple of examples of when to safeguard our hearing. Here we go:

  • 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 listening to it, and whether it’s going directly into your ears. Noise-canceling headphones are a good choice to avoid having to turn the volume way up.
  • Operating Power Tools: You understand that working every day at your factory job will call for hearing protection. But how about the enthusiast building in his workshop? Even if it’s only a hobby, hearing specialists suggest using hearing protection if you’re utilizing power equipment.
  • Exercise: You know your morning cycling class? Or maybe your daily elliptical session. You might think about using hearing protection to each one. The high volume from instructors who use loud music and microphones for motivation, though it may be good for your heart rate, can be bad for your ears.
  • Driving & Commuting: Spending all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or maybe you’re just waiting downtown for work or boarding the train. The noise of living in a city is bad enough for your ears, not to mention the extra damage caused by turning up your music to drown out the city noise.
  • Domestic Chores: We already talked about how something as simple as mowing the lawn, when done often enough, can necessitate hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a great illustration of the kind of household job that might cause harm to your ears but that you most likely don’t think about all that often.

These illustrations may 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 hearing than to leave them subject to possible harm down the road. Protect today, hear tomorrow.