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

Have you ever seen the “Beware of Sharks” sign when you’re at the ocean? It’s easy to realize that you should never dismiss a warning like that. You might even think twice about swimming at all with a sign like that (if the warning is written in big red letters that’s especially true). For some reason, though, it’s harder for people to pay attention to warnings about their hearing in the same way.

Recent research has found that millions of people disregard warning signs regarding their hearing (these studies exclusively looked at populations in the United Kingdom, but there’s no doubt the problem is more global than that). Part of the problem is awareness. To be afraid of sharks is fairly instinctive. But fear of loud noise? And the real question is, what volume level is too loud?

We’re Surrounded by Hazardously Loud Noises

It’s not only the rock concerts or the machine shop floors that are dangerous to your hearing (not to downplay the hearing risks of these situations). Many common sounds are potentially dangerous. That’s because it isn’t just the volume of a sound that is dangerous; it’s also how long you’re exposed. Your hearing can be harmed with even low level sounds like dense city traffic if you’re exposed to it for more than a couple of hours at a time.

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

  • 30 dB: This is the volume level you would expect of everyday conversation. You should be just fine at this level for an indefinite period.
  • 80 – 85 dB: This is the volume of heavy traffic, a lawnmower, or an air conditioner. This volume will normally become damaging after two hours of exposure.
  • 90 – 95 dB: Think of the noisiness of a motorcycle. This amount of exposure gets dangerous in as little as 50 minutes of exposure.
  • 100 dB: An oncoming subway train or a mid-sized sporting event are at this volume (of course, this depends on the city). 15 minutes of exposure will be enough to be harmful at this sound level.
  • 110 dB: Have you ever turned your Spotify music up to ten? That’s usually around this volume on most smartphones. 5 minutes will be enough to be unsafe at this level.
  • 120 dB and over: Anything over 120 dB (think loud rock show or very large sports events) can bring about immediate damage and pain in your ears.

How Loud is 85 dB?

In general, you’re hearing is in peril when you’re experiencing any sound 85 dB or above. But it can be hard to know how loud 85 dB is and that’s the issue. A shark is a tangible thing but sound isn’t so tangible.

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

  • Download an app: Your ears can’t be directly protected with an app. But there are a number of free apps that can function as sound level monitors. It’s hard to determine what 85 dB feels like so your ears can be damaged without you even knowing it. Making use of this app to monitor sound levels, then, is the answer. Utilizing this strategy will make it more instinctive to distinguish when you are going into the “danger zone”. (Or, the app will merely tell you when things get too loud).
  • Suitable signage and training: This especially relates to workspaces. The real dangers of hearing loss can be reinforced by signage and training (and the benefits of hearing protection). Also, just how noisy your workspace is, can be made clear by signage. Training can tell employees when hearing protection is required or recommended.

If You’re in Doubt, Protect Yourself

No signage or app will ever be perfect. So take the time to safeguard your hearing if you are in doubt. 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 (all you need to do is turn your headphone volume up a little too loud).

If you’re listening to headphones all day, you should not turn up the volume past the mid-mark. If you keep cranking it up to hear your music over background noise you need different headphones that have noise cancellation.

That’s why it’s more significant than ever to acknowledge when loud becomes too loud. Increasing your own understanding and awareness is the key if you want to do that. It isn’t hard to reduce your exposure or at least use ear protection. But you have to recognize when to do it.

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

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