Tools to protect your hearing
Editor's note: This article was originally published in October 2014. Due to its overwhelming popularity it has been updated to republish today.
Ask any healthcare provider the secret to staying healthy and they’ll most likely tell you prevention is key. Wash your hands frequently to avoid spreading germs that can cause the common cold. Eat the right foods and exercise for 30 minutes a day to avoid gaining excessive weight. Wear appropriate protection to prevent damage to your hearing.
Yes, prevention is key in the fight against hearing loss, too. One of the biggest threats to our hearing is loud noise. Whether you’re exposed to one deafening noise that occurs close to your ear or constant and excessive noise on a daily basis, the results are still the same. The trauma can damage or destroy the sensory hair cells of the inner ear, which lead to permanent hearing loss. Although noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most prevalent health concerns in the United States, it’s also the most preventable if you know what tools to use.
If you participate in a noisy sport, such as hunting, snowmobiling or woodworking, know its decibel (dB) level and take appropriate precautions. Prolonged exposure to noise louder than 85 dB can cause permanent damage. Unfortunately many hobbies, while satisfying, can be detrimental to your hearing.
- Firearms: According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), almost all firearms create noise louder than 140 dB. Because people who use firearms are more likely to develop hearing loss than those who do not, ASHA recommends using earmuffs or earplugs specifically designed for shooters. Two types of hearing protective devices (HPD) include electronic HPDs, which make softer sounds louder but shut off when there is a loud noise, and nonlinear HPDs which allow soft and moderate sounds to pass through while reducing loud sounds.
- Recreational vehicles: Snowmobiles and motorcycles register as much as 120 dB and when you add traffic and wind noise to the equation you’re talking about a very noisy ride. Some helmets provide built-in noise reduction which reduces the exterior sound by as much as 65 percent. Additionally, specialized earplugs with noise reduction rating (NPR) from 26 to 33 dB for motorcyclists are sold in multi-packs online or at local cycling shops.
- Woodworking: You might be surprised to learn how loud many of your favorite woodworking tools truly are. A thickness planer and radial saw register 105 dB, a table saw registers 104 dB, and a hand-held circular saw registers 110 dB. Fortunately, there is a variety of protection available to keep your ears safe in the workroom. Foam earplugs are inexpensive and may work best with your safety glasses. You can find these in most any drug store. If you don’t like the feel of earplugs, consider earmuffs, available online and in sporting goods store. Regardless of which one you choose, look for an NPR of at least 25.
Social butterflies — take note. There’s nothing wrong with sharing a laugh or two with friends at the brew house or big game, but it’s important to learn how to protect your hearing from potentially dangerous environmental noise.
- At the club: Could your favorite gathering place be damaging to your ears? Maybe. When the Los Angeles Times took a sound meter into restaurants and bars throughout the city, they found an average noise level of 90 dB — the same dB as a lawn mower. Normal conversation is 60 to 65 dB so, if you find your ears ringing after you’ve left your friends at the bar, resolve to limit the amount of time you spend at noisy establishments or choose to participate in gatherings in places where you don’t have to shout to be heard.
- At the concert: Whether you love classical or rock music, attending a concert can be damaging to your hearing. Symphonic music peaks at 120 to 137 dB while rock music can peak as high as 150 dB. And, even if you just listen to music on your personal electronic device (PED), your average Walkman on 5/10 setting registers 94 dB. What to do? Turn down the volume on your PEDs (of course), sit as far away from the speakers at a concert as possible, and consider wearing ear plugs.
- At the game: Believe it or not, noise at a sporting event ranges from 105 dB to 130 dB. In fact, the loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium registered 142.2 dB from Kansas City Chiefs fans at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on Sept. 29, 2014. Foam earplugs or earmuffs are a great choice here. If you find yourself at the game without proper ear protection, try to give your ears a break from the action by stepping out into the hallway every 30 minutes or so.
The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set some strict requirements for employers when it comes to protecting their employees’ hearing. Not only are employers required to implement engineering and administrative controls to reduce noise exposure, they’re also required to provide a hearing conservation program and appropriate hearing protection for their employees.
Here are some signs your workplace may be too noisy:
- You hearing ringing or humming in your ears when you leave work.
- You have to shout to be heard by a coworker an arm’s length away.
- You experience temporary hearing loss when leaving work.
If you’re concerned about workplace noise, contact OSHA’s Regional & Area Offices webpage or call 1-800-321-6742.
By far, the biggest tool in your arsenal is your awareness. Just as you protect your head by wearing a helmet or your skin by wearing sunscreen, it’s important to have the proper equipment on hand to protect your hearing — and you can’t do that without taking a moment to think about your environment before you head out the door.
It's also a good idea to be aware of how well you're hearing so you can prevent any further damage. For that, take time to have a thorough hearing evaluation by a qualified hearing healthcare professional to get a baseline indication of your hearing health. For a list of trusted professionals in your community, visit Healthy Hearing's directory of healthcare professionals.