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Sign indicating hearing protection is necessary.

It’s one thing to know that you should safeguard your hearing. Recognizing when to safeguard your ears is a different story. It’s not as easy as, for example, recognizing when to wear sunblock. (Are you going to go outside? Is the sun out? You should be using sunblock.) It isn’t even as simple as determining when to wear eye protection (Using a hammer? Working with a saw or hazardous chemicals? Use eye protection).

When dealing with when to use hearing protection, there seems to be a large grey area which can be dangerous. Unless we have particular knowledge that some activity or place is hazardous we tend to take the easy path which is to avoid the issue altogether.

Risk Evaluations

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 prove the point, here are some examples:

  • A very loud rock concert is attended by person A. 3 hours is about how long the concert lasts.
  • A landscaping company 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 the hearing hazard is greater for person A (let’s just call her Ann). Ann leaves the show with ringing ears, and she’ll spend most of the next day, struggling to hear herself speak. Presuming Ann’s activity was risky to her ears would be reasonable.

The noise that person B (let’s just call her Betty), is exposed to is not as loud. Her ears don’t ring. So her hearing must be less hazardous, right? Well, not really. Because Betty is mowing all day. So although her ears never ring out with pain, the harm builds up gradually. Even moderate noises, if experienced with enough frequency, can injury your hearing.

Person C (let’s call her Chris) is even less evident. Lawnmowers have instructions that point out the dangers of long-term exposure to noise. But while Chris works in a quiet office, she has a very noisy, hour-long commute each day on the train. Also, although she works at her desk all day, she listens to her music through earbuds. Does she need to consider protection?

When You Should Think About Protecting Your Hearing

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

The cutoff should be 85dB if you want to be scientific. Noises above 85dB have the potential, over time, to cause damage, so you need to consider wearing ear protection in those situations.

Your ears don’t have a built-in decibel meter to alert you when you reach that 85dB level, so many hearing professionals suggest obtaining special apps for your phone. These apps can tell you when the surrounding noise 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 might not be with you everywhere you go. So a few examples of when to protect your ears may help you develop a good baseline. Here we go:

  • Working With Power Tools: You recognize that working every day at your factory job is going to call for ear protection. But what if you’re simply working in your garage all day? Even if it’s just a hobby, hearing specialists suggest using hearing protection if you’re operating power equipment.
  • Exercise: You know your morning spin class? Or maybe your daily elliptical session. You may consider using hearing protection to each one. Those trainers who use 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 ears.
  • Every day Chores: Even mowing the lawn, as previously explained, requires hearing protection. Cutting the grass is a great example of the sort of household job that might cause harm to your ears but that you most likely won’t think about all that often.
  • Driving & Commuting: Do you drive for Lyft or Uber? Or maybe you’re just hanging out downtown for work or getting on the train. The noise of living in the city is bad enough for your ears, not to mention the added damage caused by turning up your tunes to drown out the city noise.
  • Listening to music with earbuds. OK, this doesn’t call for protection but does require care. Whether your music is playing directly into your ears, how loud it’s playing, and how long you’re listening to it are all things you need to give consideration to. Think about using headphones that cancel out outside noise so you don’t need to crank up the sound to damaging levels.

These illustrations might give you a good baseline. If there is any doubt, however, use protection. Compared to leaving your ears exposed to future damage, in most situations, it’s better to protect your ears. If you want to be able to hear tomorrow, protect today.

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