Volume knob set to a safe level that won't harm your hearing.

Have you ever noticed the “Beware of Sharks” sign when you go to the ocean? It’s not exactly a warning you ignore. You may even reconsider swimming at all with a sign like that (if the warning is written in big red letters that’s particularly true). Inexplicably, though, it’s harder for people to heed warnings about their hearing in the same way.

Recent research has found that millions of people disregard warning signs regarding their hearing (these studies specifically considered populations in the UK, but there’s no doubt the concern is more global than that). Part of the issue is awareness. It’s pretty intuitive to be fearful of sharks. But most people don’t have an overt fear of loud sounds. And the real question is, what’s too loud?

We’re Surrounded by Hazardously Loud Noises

Your ears are not just in peril at a live concert or on the floor of a machine shop (although both of those venues are, indeed, dangerous to your hearing). Many common sounds can be hazardous. That’s because it isn’t exclusively the volume of a sound that is dangerous; it’s also how long you’re exposed. Even lower-level noises, including dense city traffic, can be damaging to your hearing when experienced for more than two hours.

Generally speaking, here’s a rough outline of when loud becomes too loud:

  • 30 dB: This is the volume level you would find in normal conversation. You should be perfectly fine around this volume for an indefinite period.
  • 80 – 85 dB: This is the volume of heavy traffic, lawn equipment, or an air conditioner. After around two hours this level of sound becomes dangerous.
  • 90 – 95 dB: A motorcycle is a good example of this sound level. 50 minutes is enough to be unsafe at this level of sound.
  • 100 dB: An oncoming subway train or a mid-sized sports event are at this sound level (of course, this depends on the city). 15 minutes of exposure will be enough to be unsafe at this volume.
  • 110 dB: Do you ever turn the volume on your earpods up as high as it will go? On most smartphones, that’s right around this level. 5 minutes will be enough to be unsafe at this volume.
  • 120 dB and over: Instant pain and injury can happen at or above this volume (consider an arena sized sporting event or rock concert).

How Loud is 85 Decibels?

In general, you should look at anything 85 dB or higher as putting your hearing in the danger zone. But it can be hard to recognize how loud 85 dB is and that’s the difficulty. A shark is a tangible thing but sound is not so tangible.

And that’s one reason why hearing warnings frequently go ignored, particularly when the sound environment isn’t loud enough to cause pain. There are a couple of possible solutions to this:

  • Adequate training and signage: This particularly refers to workspaces. The real hazards of hearing loss can be reinforced by signage and training (and the benefits of protecting your hearing). Also, just how noisy your workplace is, can be made clear by signage. Training can help employees know when hearing protection is needed or suggested.
  • Download an app: Your ears can’t be directly safeguarded with an app. But there are a few sound level metering apps. It’s hard to judge what 85 dB feels like so your ears can be injured without you even knowing it. The answer, then, is to have this app open and keep track of the sound levels around you. This will help you establish a sense for when you’re going into the “danger zone” (and you will also discern right away when things are getting too loud).

When in Doubt: Protect

Signage and apps aren’t a foolproof answer. So if you’re in doubt, take the time to safeguard your ears. Over a long enough duration, noise damage will almost certainly create hearing issues. And these days, it’s never been easier to injure your ears (all you need to do is turn your headphone volume up a little too loud).

You shouldn’t raise the volume past half way, particularly if you’re listening all day. If you keep turning it up to hear your music over background sound you need different headphones that can block out noise.

So when volume becomes too loud, it’s essential to recognize it. And to do this, you need to increase your own recognition and knowledge level. Safeguarding your ears, using earplugs, earmuffs, or limiting your exposure, is not that difficult. That begins with a little recognition of when you should do it.

That should be easier today, too. Especially now that you understand what to be aware of.

Schedule a hearing exam today if you think you might have hearing loss.

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