Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

Realizing you need to protect your hearing is one thing. Knowing when to safeguard your ears is a different story. It’s more difficult than, let’s say, knowing when you need sunscreen. (Is the sun out and will you be outdoors? Then you need sunscreen.) It isn’t even as easy as determining when to use eye protection (Doing some hammering? Cutting some wood or working with dangerous chemicals? Use eye protection).

When dealing with when to use hearing protection, there seems to be a big grey area which can be dangerous. Unless we have particular information that some place or activity is dangerous we tend to take the easy road which is to avoid the problem altogether.

Risk Assessments

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 possibility of lasting sensorineural hearing loss. To demonstrate the situation, here are some examples:

  • Person A attends a very loud rock concert. 3 hours is about the length of the concert.
  • A landscaping business is run by person B. After mowing lawns all day, she goes home to quietly read a book.
  • Person C is an office worker.

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

Person B (let’s just call her Betty), on the other hand, is subjected to less noise. Her ears don’t ring. So it must be less hazardous for her ears, right? Well, not really. Because Betty is mowing all day. So despite the fact that her ears never ring out with pain, the injury accrues slowly. Even moderate sounds, if experienced regularly, can harm your hearing.

Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less obvious. Lawnmowers have instructions that emphasize the risks of long-term exposure to noise. But even though Chris has a relatively quiet job, her long morning commute through the city every day is fairly loud. Also, while she works behind her desk all day, she listens to her music through earbuds. Does she need to consider protection?

When is it Time to Start to Consider 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 you really should consider using earmuffs or earplugs if your environment is that noisy.

The cutoff should be 85dB if you want to be clinical. Noises above 85dB have the ability, over time, to cause injury, so you should consider using hearing protection in those situations.

Your ears don’t have their own decibel meter to alert you when you get to that 85dB level, so countless hearing specialists suggest getting specialized apps for your phone. These apps can inform you when the ambient noise is approaching a harmful level, and you can take suitable steps.

A Few Examples

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

  • Exercise: You know your morning spin class? Or maybe your evening Pilates session? You might consider wearing hearing protection to each one. Those instructors who use 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.
  • Commuting and Driving: Do you drive for Lyft or Uber? Or maybe you’re riding a subway after waiting for a while downtown. The noise of living in a city is bad enough for your ears, not to mention the extra damage caused by cranking up your music to drown out the city noise.
  • Working With Power Tools: You know that working all day at your factory job will require hearing protection. But what if you’re just working in your garage all day? Most hearing specialists will recommend you wear hearing protection when operating power tools, even if it’s just on a hobbyist level.
  • Listening to music with earbuds. This one calls for caution, not protection. Pay attention to how loud the music is, how long you’re listening to it, and whether it’s playing directly into your ears. Noise-canceling headphones are a smart choice to steer clear of needing to turn the volume way up.
  • Household Chores: We already discussed how something as basic as mowing the lawn, when done frequently, can necessitate hearing protection. Chores, such as mowing, are probably something you don’t even think about, but they can lead to hearing damage.

A strong baseline might be established by these examples. 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 exposed to possible damage down the road. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.

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