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Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

It’s one thing to recognize that you should safeguard your ears. Recognizing when to protect your ears is another matter. It’s more challenging than, for instance, knowing when you need sunscreen. (Are you going outdoors? Is there sunlight? You need to be using sunscreen.) It isn’t even as easy as determining when to wear eye protection (Using a hammer? Working with a saw or dangerous chemicals? Use eye protection).

It can feel like there’s a significant grey area when addressing when to use ear protection, and that can be dangerous. Often, we’ll defer to our natural tendency to avoid hearing protection unless we’re given information that a specific place or activity is dangerous.

A Tale of Risk Assessment

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 probability of permanent sensorineural hearing loss. To prove the point, here are some examples:

  • A very loud rock concert is attended by person A. The concert lasts about 3 hours.
  • A landscaping business is run by person B. She spends a significant amount of time mowing lawns, then goes home to a quiet house and reads.
  • Person C works in an office.

You might think 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 screeching from the loud concert. Presuming 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 safer for her hearing, right? Not necessarily. Because Betty is mowing every day. So even though her ears don’t ring out with pain, the harm accrues slowly. Even moderate sounds, if experienced regularly, can harm your hearing.

Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less clear. Most people understand that you need to protect your hearing while using equipment like a lawnmower. But even though Chris works in a quiet office, she has a very noisy, hour-long commute each day through the city. In addition, she sits behind her desk and listens to music through earbuds. Is protection something she should think about?

When You Should Think About Safeguarding Your Hearing

The general guideline is that if you need to raise your voice in order to be heard, your environment is noisy enough to do harm to your ears. And if your environment is 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 ability to cause damage over time, so in those scenarios, you need to think about wearing hearing protection.

Your ears don’t have their own sound level meter to warn you when you reach that 85dB level, so most hearing specialists recommend getting specialized apps for your phone. These apps can tell you when the ambient sound is approaching a hazardous level, and you can take suitable steps.

A Few Examples

Your phone might not be with you wherever you go even if you do get the app. So a few examples of when to safeguard your ears may help you develop a good baseline. Here we go:

  • Driving & Commuting: Spending all day as an Uber or Lyft driver? Or perhaps you’re riding a subway after waiting for a little while downtown. The constant noise of city living, when experienced for 6-8 hours every day, can cause damage to your hearing over the long haul, especially if you’re cranking up your music to hear it over the commotion.
  • Residential Chores: We already mentioned how something as straightforward as mowing the lawn, when done frequently, can necessitate hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a good example of the type of household task that might cause harm to your ears but that you most likely won’t think about all that often.
  • Operating Power Tools: You recognize that working every day at your factory job is going to require hearing protection. But what if you’re simply puttering around your garage all day? Most hearing professionals will recommend you wear hearing protection when operating power tools, even if it’s just on a hobbyist basis.
  • 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’s playing, and how long you’re listening to it are all things you need to pay attention to. Noise-canceling headphones are a good choice to steer clear of needing to turn the volume way up.
  • Exercise: You know your morning cycling class? Or maybe your daily elliptical session. Each of these examples could require ear protection. Those instructors who make use of sound systems and microphones (and loud music) to motivate you may be good for your heart rate, but all that volume is bad for your ears.

A strong baseline might be researched by these examples. If there is any doubt, however, use protection. Compared to leaving your ears exposed to future injury, in most cases, it’s better to protect your hearing. Protect today, hear tomorrow.


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