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

Have you ever seen the “Beware of Sharks” sign when you go to the ocean? It’s not exactly a warning you disregard. You may even rethink swimming at all with a sign like that (if the sign is written in big red letters that’s particularly true). But people don’t tend to pay attention to warnings about their hearing in the same way for some reason.

Recent studies have found that millions of people ignore warning signs when it comes to their hearing (these studies specifically looked at populations in the United Kingdom, but there’s little doubt the problem is more global than that). Part of the challenge is awareness. Fear of sharks is rather intuitive. But fear of loud noise? And how do you recognize how loud is too loud?

We’re Surrounded by Dangerously Loud Sounds

It isn’t just the machine shop floor or rock concert that are dangerous to your hearing (not to downplay the hearing risks of these scenarios). Many every-day sounds are potentially hazardous. That’s because it’s not only the volume of a sound that presents a danger; it’s also the duration. Even lower-level noises, such as dense city traffic, can be dangerous to your ears if you are exposed for more than a couple of hours.

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

  • 30 dB: This is the sound level you would expect of normal conversation. At this level, there won’t be a limit to how long you can safely be exposed.
  • 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 practical example of this sound level. This level of exposure becomes hazardous in as little as 50 minutes of exposure.
  • 100 dB: An approaching subway train or a mid-sized sporting 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? On most smartphones, that’s right around this volume. This level of exposure becomes 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 sports event or rock show).

How Loud is 85 Decibels?

In general, you should regard anything 85 dB or louder as putting your hearing in the danger zone. The issue is that it’s not always obvious just how loud 85 dB is. A shark is a tangible thing but sound is not so tangible.

And that’s one of the reasons why hearing cautions frequently go ignored, especially when the sound environment isn’t loud enough to cause pain. Here are a couple of possible solutions:

  • Suitable signage and training: This especially pertains to workspaces. The significant dangers of hearing loss can be reinforced by signage and training (and the benefits of hearing protection). Also, just how loud your workplace is, can be made clear by signage. Helping employees recognize when hearing protection is recommended or required with proper training can be really helpful.
  • Get an app: There isn’t an app that will directly safeguard your ears. But there are a number of free apps that can work as sound level monitors. Damage to your hearing can happen without you recognizing it because it’s tough to recognize just how loud 85 dB feels. Using this app to monitor sound levels, then, is the answer. 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 noisy).

If You’re in Doubt, Protect Yourself

Apps and signage aren’t a foolproof answer. So make the effort to protect your ears if you are in doubt. Over a long enough period of time, noise damage will almost certainly create hearing problems. And these days, it’s never been easier to damage your ears (it’s a simple matter of listening to your tunes too loudly).

If you’re listening to headphones all day, you should not increase the volume past the half way. 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. And to do that, you need to increase your own recognition and knowledge level. Protecting your ears, wearing ear protection, or reducing your exposure, is easy enough. But you have to recognize when to do it.

Today that should also be easier. That’s even more true now that you have some insight.

Schedule a hearing test right away if you think you may have hearing loss.

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