Have you ever noticed the “Beware of Sharks” sign when you go to the ocean? It’s easy to realize that you should never ignore a caution like that. A sign like that (especially if written in big, red letters) might even make you reconsider your swim altogether. But people usually don’t heed cautions about their hearing in the same way for some reason.
Recent research has found that millions of individuals neglect warning signs when it comes to their hearing (there’s no doubt that this is a global problem, though this research was specifically conducted in the UK). Part of the challenge is knowledge. It’s pretty instinctive to be afraid of sharks. But fear of loud noise? And the real question is, what volume level is too loud?
We’re Surrounded by Dangerously Loud Noises
It’s not only the machine shop floor or rock concert that are dangerous to your hearing (not to minimize the hearing risks of these scenarios). There are potential dangers with many common sounds. That’s because it’s not only the volume of a sound that is dangerous; it’s also the duration. Even lower-level sounds, like dense city traffic, can be dangerous to your ears if you are exposed for more than two hours.
Broadly speaking, here’s an approximate outline of when loud becomes too loud:
- 30 dB: Everyday conversation would be at this volume level. You should be perfectly fine at this level for an indefinite period.
- 80 – 85 dB: An air conditioner, heavy traffic, and a lawnmower are at this volume. After about two hours this level of sound becomes harmful.
- 90 – 95 dB: A motorcycle is a good example of this sound level. This amount of exposure gets hazardous in as little as 50 minutes of exposure.
- 100 dB: This is the level of noise you might experience from a mid-size sports event or an oncoming subway train (of course, this depends on the city). This volume can get dangerous after 15 minutes of exposure.
- 110 dB: Have you ever turned your Spotify music up to max volume? On most smartphones, that’s about this level. 5 minutes will be enough to be dangerous at this level.
- 120 dB and over: Immediate pain and injury can occur at or above this level (think about an arena sized sports event or rock concert).
What Does 85 dB Sound Like?
Generally, you should look at anything 85 dB or louder as putting your hearing in the danger zone. 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 is not so tangible.
And hearing cautions often get neglected because of this specifically when the sound environment isn’t loud enough to cause pain. Here are a couple of possible solutions:
- Adequate signage and training: This goes for the workplace, in particular. The real dangers of hearing loss can be reinforced by training and sufficient signage (and the benefits of hearing protection). Signage could also make it clear just how loud your workplace is. Helping employees recognize when hearing protection is suggested or required with appropriate training can be very helpful.
- Download an app: Your hearing can’t be directly protected with an app. But there are several free apps that can function as sound level monitors. Damage to your ears can happen without you realizing it because it’s difficult to recognize just how loud 85 dB feels. Using this app to keep track of noise levels, then, is the solution. This can help you establish a sense for when you’re going into the “danger zone” (and you will also recognize immediately when things are getting too loud).
When in Doubt: Protect
No app and no signage will ever be flawless. So if you’re in doubt, take the time to protect your hearing. Over a long enough duration, noise damage will almost definitely create hearing problems. And these days, it’s never been easier to harm your ears (all you have to do is turn your headphone volume up a little too loud).
You shouldn’t raise the volume past half way, specifically if you’re listening all day. You need noise cancellation headphones if you are continually turning up the volume to cover up background sound.
That’s the reason why it’s more important than ever to acknowledge when loud becomes too loud. And to do that, you need to increase your own recognition and knowledge level. It’s not hard to minimize your exposure or at least wear ear protection. That begins with a little recognition of when you should do it.
Today that should also be easier. That’s even more relevant now that you have some awareness.
Think you could have hearing loss? Schedule an exam.