What’s a Safe Listening Level?

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

You ever go to the beach and noticed one of those “Beware of Shark” warning signs? It’s not really a warning you ignore. A sign like that (specifically if written in large, red letters) might even make you rethink 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 (these studies exclusively considered populations in the United Kingdom, but there’s little doubt the concern is more global than that). Awareness is a big part of the issue. 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 just the machine shop floor or rock concert that are dangerous to your hearing (not to downplay the hearing risks of these situations). There are potential dangers with many every-day sounds. That’s because exposure time is as hazardous as the volume. Even low-level noises, like dense city traffic, can be damaging to your hearing when experienced for more than a couple of hours.

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

  • 30 dB: Normal conversation would be at this volume level. At this level, there won’t be any limit to how long you can safely be exposed.
  • 80 – 85 dB: This is the sound level of heavy traffic, a lawnmower, or an air conditioning unit. 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 level of sound.
  • 100 dB: This is the amount of sound you might experience from a mid-size sports event or an approaching subway train (depending on the city, of course). This level of sound can become hazardous after 15 minutes of exposure.
  • 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 volume.
  • 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 Decibels Sound Like?

Broadly speaking, you should look at anything 85 dB or louder as putting your ears at risk. The issue is that it isn’t always clear just how loud 85 dB is. It’s not tangible in the way that a shark is tangible.

And hearing cautions often go ignored for this reason especially when the sound environment isn’t loud enough to cause pain. There are a couple of possible solutions to this:

  • Adequate training and signage: This especially relates to the workplace. The significant hazards of hearing loss can be reinforced by training and sufficient signage (and the benefits of hearing protection). In addition, just how loud your workplace is, can be clarified by signage. Helping employees recognize when hearing protection is suggested or required with proper training can be very helpful.
  • Get an app: There isn’t an app that will immediately protect your ears. But there are a number of free apps that can work as sound level monitors. Damage to your ears can happen without you realizing it because it’s hard to know just how loud 85 dB feels. The answer, then, is to have this app working and track the sound levels around you. This can help you develop a sense for when you’re entering the “danger zone” (and you will also recognize right away when things are getting too loud).

When in Doubt: Protect

No signage or app will ever be flawless. So take the time to protect your ears if you are in doubt. Noise damage, over a long enough time period, can result in hearing loss. And it’s easier than ever to injure your ears (all you have to do is turn your headphone volume up a little too loud).

If you’re listening to headphones all day, you should not increase the volume past the half way. If you keep cranking it up to hear your music over background noise you need different headphones that can block out noise.

So when volume becomes too loud, it’s important to acknowledge it. And in order to do this, you need to increase your own recognition and knowledge level. Protecting your ears, using ear protection, or decreasing your exposure, is easy enough. But you have to recognize when to do it.

That should be easier these days, too. Especially now that you understand what to look for.

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

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.


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