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 sign you dismiss. A warning like that (particularly if written in big, red letters) may even make you reconsider your swim altogether. For some reason, though, it’s more challenging for people to listen to warnings about their hearing in the same way.

Recent research has found that millions of people ignore warning signs when it comes to their hearing (this research exclusively considered populations in the United Kingdom, but there’s no doubt the concern is more global than that). Part of the issue is knowledge. Being afraid of sharks is pretty instinctive. But fear of loud noise? And the real question is, what’s too loud?

We’re Surrounded by Hazardously Loud Noises

It’s not only the rock concerts or the machine shop floors that present dangers to your ears (although both of those venues are, indeed, hazardous to your hearing). There are potential risks with many common sounds. That’s because it’s not just the volume of a sound that is dangerous; it’s also how long you’re exposed. Even lower-level sounds, including dense city traffic, can be harmful to your ears when experienced for more than two hours.

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

  • 30 dB: This is the sound level you would expect of everyday conversation. You should be just fine at this level for an indefinite length of time.
  • 80 – 85 dB: An air conditioner, dense traffic, and a lawnmower are at this level of sound. After around two hours this level of sound becomes harmful.
  • 90 – 95 dB: Think of how loud a motorcycle is. 50 minutes is enough to be harmful at this volume.
  • 100 dB: An oncoming subway train or a mid-sized sports event are at this volume (depending on the city, of course). 15 minutes of exposure will be enough to be harmful at this volume.
  • 110 dB: Do you ever turn the volume on your earpods up to max? That’s normally around this sound level on most smartphones. This level of exposure is dangerous after only 5 minutes of exposure.
  • 120 dB and over: Instant pain and injury can occur at or above this level (consider an arena sized sporting event or rock concert).

How Loud is 85 Decibels?

Generally speaking, you’re hearing is in peril when you’re dealing with any sound 85 dB or louder. But it can be difficult to distinguish how loud 85 dB is and that’s the problem. It’s not tangible the way that a shark is tangible.

And that’s one of the reasons why hearing cautions commonly go neglected, when the sound environment isn’t loud enough to cause pain, this is especially true. There are a couple of potential solutions to this:

  • Sufficient signage and training: This especially relates to workspaces. Training and signage can help reinforce the real dangers of hearing loss (and the benefits of hearing protection). In addition, just how loud your workspace is, can be made clear by signage. Helping employees know when hearing protection is suggested or required with proper training can be very useful.
  • Get an app: Your hearing can’t be directly safeguarded with an app. But there are several sound level metering apps. Injury to your ears can occur without you recognizing it because it’s tough to know just how loud 85 dB feels. Using this app to monitor sound levels, then, is the solution. Using this approach will make it more instinctual to distinguish when you are going into the “danger zone”. (and you will also discern right away when things are getting too loud).

If You’re in Doubt, Protect Yourself

No app and no signage will ever be 100%. So if you’re in doubt, take the time to safeguard your ears. Over a long enough duration, noise damage will almost definitely create hearing problems. And it’s easier than it ever has been to harm your ears (it’s a simple matter of listening to your music too loudly).

You shouldn’t increase the volume past half way, especially if you’re listening all day. If you keep turning it up to hear your music over background sound you should find different headphones that have noise cancellation.

That’s the reason why it’s more important than ever to recognize when the volume becomes too loud. Raising your own knowledge and awareness is the answer if you want to do that. Safeguarding your ears, wearing earplugs, earmuffs, or limiting your exposure, is not that difficult. But you have to know when to do it.

Today that should also be easier. Especially now that you understand what to be aware of.

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