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Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

It’s one thing to realize that you should protect your hearing. It’s another matter to know when to safeguard your hearing. It’s more difficult than, for example, knowing when you need sunscreen. (Is the sun out and are you going to be outside? Then you need sunblock.) Even knowing when you need eye protection is simpler (Doing some hammering? Working with a saw or dangerous chemicals? Use eye protection).

It can feel as though there’s a large grey area when addressing when to use hearing protection, and that can be detrimental. Often, we’ll defer to our natural tendency to avoid hearing protection unless we’re given information that a specified activity or place is hazardous.

Assessing The Risks

In general, we’re not very good at assessing risk, especially when it comes to something as intangible as long term hearing damage or loss of hearing. To prove the point, check out some examples:

  • Person A attends a very loud rock concert. 3 hours is around how long the concert lasts.
  • Person B runs 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 hazard is greater for person A (let’s just call her Ann). For most of the next day, her ears will still be screeching from the loud concert. It seems fair to presume that Ann’s activity was very risky.

Person B (let’s call her Betty), on the other hand, is exposed to less noise. There’s no ringing in her ears. So her hearing must be safer, right? Not really. Because Betty is mowing all day. So even though her ears don’t ring out with pain, the injury builds up gradually. If experienced every day, even moderately loud noises can have a detrimental affect on your hearing.

Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less obvious. Lawnmowers come with instructions that emphasize the dangers of long-term exposure to noise. But despite the fact that Chris has a relatively quiet job, her long morning commute on the train every day is quite loud. In addition, she sits at her desk and listens to music through earbuds. Is protection something she should consider?

When is it Time to Begin Thinking About Protecting Your Ears?

The normal rule of thumb is that if you have to raise your voice to be heard, your surroundings are loud enough to do injure to your ears. And if your environment is that loud, you need to think about wearing earmuffs or earplugs.

The cutoff needs to be 85dB if you want to be clinical. Sounds above 85dB have the capacity to cause damage over time, so in those scenarios, you should consider wearing ear protection.

Most hearing professionals suggest making use of a special app to monitor decibel levels so you will be aware when the 85dB has been reached. These apps can let you know when the ambient sound is approaching a dangerous level, and you can take suitable steps.

A Few Examples

Even if you do download that app and take it with you, your phone may not be with you wherever you go. So we might formulate a good baseline with a couple of examples of when to safeguard our ears. Here we go:

  • Household Chores: Even mowing the lawn, as previously stated, requires hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a great illustration of the sort of household task that could cause damage to your hearing but that you most likely don’t think about all that often.
  • Working With Power Tools: You understand you will need hearing protection if you work all day in a factory. But what if you’re just working in your garage all day? Most hearing specialists will suggest you use hearing protection when operating power tools, even if it’s only on a hobbyist level.
  • Driving & Commuting: Do you drive for Lyft or Uber? Or perhaps you’re taking 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 tunes to drown out the city noise.
  • Exercise: You know your morning spin class? Or maybe your daily elliptical session. All of these cases may call for ear protection. Those instructors who use microphones and sound systems (and loud music) to motivate you may be good for your heart rate, but all that loudness is bad for your ears.
  • 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 need to give consideration to. Consider getting headphones that cancel out outside noise so you don’t have to crank up the volume to damaging levels.

A strong baseline may be researched by these examples. When in doubt, though, you should defer to protection. In most cases, it’s better to over-protect your hearing than to leave them subject to possible damage in the future. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.

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