Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

Knowing you should protect your ears is one thing. Recognizing when to protect your ears is a different story. It’s not as simple as, for example, recognizing when to wear sunblock. (Are you going outside? Is the sun out? You need to be using sunblock.) Even knowing when you need eye protection is easier (Working with hazardous chemicals? Doing some construction? You need eye protection).

It can feel like there’s a large grey area when addressing when to wear ear protection, and that can be detrimental. Usually, we’ll defer to our normal tendency to avoid hearing protection unless we’re given information that a specific activity or place 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 lasting sensorineural hearing loss. To demonstrate the situation, check out some examples:

  • Person A attends a very loud rock concert. 3 hours is about the length of the concert.
  • Person B owns a landscaping company. She spends a considerable amount of time mowing lawns, then she goes home to a quiet house and reads 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. 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 ears would be fair.

Person B (let’s just call her Betty), on the other hand, is subjected to less noise. There’s no ringing in her ears. So it must be safer for her hearing, right? Well, not really. Because Betty is mowing every day. In reality, the damage accumulates a little bit at a time despite the fact that they don’t ring out. Even moderate sounds, if experienced with enough frequency, can damage your ears.

What’s going on with person C (let’s call her Chris) is even harder to make sense of. Lawnmowers have instructions that point out the hazards of continued exposure to noise. But even though Chris has a relatively quiet job, her long morning commute through the city every day is quite loud. Additionally, she sits behind her desk and listens to music through earbuds. Is protection something she should think about?

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

Generally, you need to turn down the volume if you have to raise your voice to be heard. And you need to think about wearing earplugs or earmuffs if your environment is that noisy.

So to put this a little more clinically, you need to use 85dB as your limit. Sounds above 85dB have the potential to result in injury over time, so in those scenarios, you need to think about wearing ear protection.

Many hearing professionals recommend using a special app to monitor decibel levels so you will be cognizant of when the 85dB has been reached. You will be able to take the correct steps to protect your hearing because these apps will inform you when the noise is reaching a harmful volume.

A Few Examples

Even if you do get that app and take it with you, your phone may not be with you wherever you go. So a few examples of when to protect your ears might help you formulate a good standard. Here we go:

  • Exercise: You know your morning spin class? Or maybe your daily elliptical session. All of these examples might call for hearing protection. Those trainers 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: Do you drive for Lyft or Uber? Or perhaps you’re taking a subway after waiting for a while downtown. The constant noise of city living, when experienced for between 6 and 8 hours a day, can cause injury to your hearing over the long term, especially if you’re cranking up your music to hear it over the commotion.
  • Using Power Tools: You know you will want hearing protection if you work all day in a factory. But how about the hobbyist building in his garage? Even if it’s only a hobby, hearing specialists recommend wearing hearing protection if you’re using power equipment.
  • Listening to music with earbuds. This one requires caution, more than protection. Pay attention to how loud the music is, how long you’re playing it, and whether it’s going directly into your ears. Consider using headphones that cancel out outside noise so you don’t have to crank up the volume to hazardous levels.
  • Residential Chores: Even mowing the lawn, as previously mentioned, requires hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a good illustration of the kind of household chore that may cause damage to your ears but that you most likely won’t think about all that often.

These examples might give you a suitable baseline. When in doubt, though, you should choose protection. In the majority of cases, it’s better to over-protect your hearing than to leave them subject to possible injury down the road. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.