Hearing Protection For Lawn Mowing – Is It Really Necessary?
I always wear eye protection when I mow because I know that flying debris can cause serious eye damage. But I started to wonder if I needed to protect my hearing as well. Being an avid home and yard guy, I decided to do some research and find out for sure. Is it really necessary to use hearing protection while mowing? What I learned is...
Yes, hearing protection is a must when mowing with any motorized lawn mower (even electric mowers), but not necessary with manual push reel mowers.
The main consideration is the amount of noise that your mower makes. Obviously, the noisier your mower is, the more likely it is to cause damage to your ears and, eventually, hearing loss.
Do YOU Need Hearing Protection?
Basically, you need to use hearing protection when using anything other than a reel mower.
Why not with reel mowers?
Reel mowers are about as loud as heavy rain hitting a driveway, or at least they are as long as they are finely tuned. No hearing protection is needed in this case, but earplugs will keep dirt, dust and tiny bugs out of your ears.
But what about electric mower?
Electric mowers have pretty quiet engines, but the rapidly spinning blades generate a loud, roaring hum that normally hovers around 75 decibels. Electric riding mowers sit at about 80 decibels. This is a bit below the 85-decibel mark that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets as the point where workers need hearing protection (source). But shouldn't you set your own safety standards above that of a government agency's? OSHA sets minimum standards while encouraging workers to take their own safety further. Be safe, and use hearing protection if you have an electric mower.
What about the common "gas powered" mower?
Gas mowers are louder than electric mowers. Push models produce an average of 85 dB. For riding models, the noise intensity is 90 dB or more. Keep in mind that these figures are for new and well-maintained mowers. Older and neglected mowers are usually quite a bit louder. The same is true with bigger and more powerful models. Not only do larger decks require bigger engines with more torque and RPM, but their longer blades create a lot more roar. You should definitely wear hearing protection when using a gas mower.
What's The Best Hearing Protection For Mowing?
I wish I could give a simple answer to this simple question. But "the best" is a subjective term. You really need to use the form of hearing protection that suits you most.
That said, there are two basic types: earplugs and earmuffs. Plugs are inserted into the ear canal, while muffs are worn over the ears like cushioned headphones.
Each type has it's own set of advantages and disadvantages, but both reduce the amount of noise that reaches your eardrums by about 32 dB. This cuts the noise intensity from a 90 dB riding mower down to about 60 dB, which is as loud as a normal conversation.
This is the type that professionals usually use. That's not because they're more effective than plugs, mind you. They're just easier to use. Once you have them adjusted for your head, you just put them on like headphones and make sure the muffs are completely covering your ears.
Earmuffs cost typically start around $15 and go up from there. Keep in mind that a higher price doesn't necessarily mean better protection. What matters most is the fit. You should try a pair on if you buy at a store, of if you're buying online make sure there's a good return policy.
Make sure the cushioning of the muffs fit completely over your ears and make contact with your head all the way around. If you buy earmuffs online, check the customer reviews. Try to see if most people say they fit well. Mpow makes this lightweight set of earmuffs that has great reviews on Amazon, and of course Amazon has a great return policy.
If you get muffs online and they turn out to be ill-fitting, don't use them. Return them and get some that seal your ears off.
The most basic kind of plugs are made of foam. You roll them between your thumb and index fingers until they are rolled down small enough to fit into your ear. Then you simply insert them. They expand within seconds to fill the ear canal and create a seal.
To remove them, you just pinch the ends and pull slowly and gently. This kind of plug is cheap, especially when bought in bulk. A box of 200 pair, which should last a few years, costs a little over $20. You can buy them one pair at a time, but you'll end up paying ten times more per pair. Howard Light's Max 1 line of foam earplugs are a great value, if you want my opinion.
If you don't like the idea of having to roll the plugs to fit them in your ears, or just want reusable ones, check out rigid earplugs. Most of them are shaped like little fir trees, with the skinnier top part being the side that goes into the ear first. They are inserted slowly with a twisting motion and removed the same way.
That kind is more expensive than the foam type, but they can be reused several times and therefore cost about the same in the long run. You can get 100 pair for about $100, or you can buy them a pair at a time for about $3 per set.
Moldable earplugs are perhaps the most comfortable. You heat them in boiling water to soften them up. After they have cooled a bit, you insert them into your ears and go about your business for a while. Once they are set, which takes just a few minutes, they retain their shaped while still being somewhat flexible.
Decibullz makes a set of moldable earplugs that can be remolded over and over again, in case you don't get such a good fit the first time. Whatever brand you choose, expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $30 for a good pair.
Are they worth it?
Well, they are very comfortable. And they should last for an entire mowing season, so they are worth the money if comfort is a big issue for you. But don't think that moldable plugs are more effective than any other kind. Their main benefit is comfort.
What Happens If You Don't Use Hearing Protection While Mowing?
Regular exposure to noise louder than 85dB can cause hearing damage, even if it is minor. Remember, any mower (besides a reel mower) makes about this much noise or more.
The only way to prevent hearing loss from mowing is to stop the noise of your mower from reaching your eardrums. If you don't use a mechanical barrier to keep that racket out of your ears, the constant acoustic assault will take it's toll.
You won't notice any hearing loss after a few mows, and maybe not even after several years. The damage and resulting hearing loss are cumulative. It usually happens so slowly and gradually that it goes unnoticed. But the end result can be serious.
Here are some of the signs that people first notice when their hearing is damaged:
If you have seen any of these warning signs of ear damage yourself, you may already have a degree of hearing loss. Signs of more serious damage include a constant ringing in the ears, a muffled quality to sound and even avoiding social situations because conversation is difficult or frustrating.
Start protecting your hearing now, before it's too late.
Common Misconceptions About Protecting Your Hearing While Mowing
While doing my research, I came across some misconceptions about hearing protection that can be dangerous. I'd like to clear the air and address a couple common ones.
There is nothing you can do to your gas or electric mower that will make it quiet enough to go without hearing protection. Most of a mower's noise comes from the spinning of the blades. You know this if you have ever had a deck belt break while you were mowing. When the blades stop, so does the worst of the noise. The engine seems quiet in comparison.
Cotton Balls As Earplugs
Cotton balls are not a substitute for earplugs! Just because they can be squeezed into your ear doesn't mean they block noise. The noise reduction rating of cotton balls and similar material is very close to zero.
Earbuds And Headphones
Don't ever use earbuds or headphones to drown out the noise from a mower. This doesn't block any noise at all, but it does add a lot of intensity to the already damaging mower noise. Doing this regularly will cause rapid hearing loss.
Earplugs Are Not Dangerous!
Earplugs cannot harm your ears when used correctly, or at least with a minimum of common sense. They are very spongy and can't puncture eardrums. There is no need to worry about them pushing earwax too far into your ears either.
Hearing Protection Isn't Just For Pros
Landscapers can be around very loud professional-style mowers for more than 40 hours a week. They take hearing protection seriously. But many weekend mowers think that they are not exposed to mower noise long enough to need plugs or muffs. This is a dangerous and false assumption.
Remember that hearing damage, when caused by a mower's steady drone of noise, is cumulative. It takes a while before it becomes apparent, but it is real and it will happen if you don't protect your ears.
I spent some time digging for answers, and I actually learned a lot. Unless you have a reel mower, you need hearing protection while cutting your grass. You have to use comfortable hearing protection. And you have to use it every time you mow.