Occupational noise hazards are one of the most common workplace safety concerns. Our hearing is sensitive and it doesn’t take much to temporarily impair or permanently damage it. Noise hazards vary widely in extremity and cause but no matter if it’s an airport terminal or demolition site, steps must be taken to protect worker’s hearing. When identifying potential noise hazards in the workplace, the first step is taking a second to consider what qualifies a noise as a ‘hazard’.
When Is Noise A Hazard?
Noise is any sound that the human ear finds unpleasing and disruptive to concentration. When annoying sounds become noise hazards is when that noise begins interfering with communication and warning signals on the job and causes chronic health problems. These hazards occur when sounds workers are exposed to are greater than 85 decibels, weighted over an eight hour shift. To give you an idea of what exactly 85 decibels is: the rustling of leaves is typically 10 decibels, a normal conversation is between 50-60 decibels, a chainsaw or drill produces 110 decibels while a jet engine is near the top of end of the scale producing about 140 decibels of sound.
Identifying Noise Hazards
1. Look for the Signs — Look for existing safety signage indicating known noise hazards and the necessity of PPE. Even if a work site is labeled, it still may not be safe. If machinery has been replaced or moved since the signage was put up the noise hazard may be more severe.
2. Shout at an Arm’s Length — The fastest and easiest way to test if there is a potential noise hazard in a specific area of a job site is to have workers stand at an arm’s length from each other and have a conversation. If one worker must raise their voice or the other has a difficult time hearing, there is most mostly a noise hazard present. This is the most practical way to keep employees safe: if in that environment they can’t hear a conversation at arm’s length what are the odds they can hear a cry for help or be heard, themselves?
3. Ringing or Humming — If you leave work with any sort of ringing in your ear, have difficulty hearing others or you believe you can still hear machines running, there is likelihood you have suffered temporary hearing damage. You should report this to your supervisor immediately and seek medical attention, if needed.
4. Related Health Issues — There are a number of other serious health issues that can be directly linked to over exposure of occupational noise hazards. Some related health effects include: A decrease over time in coordination and concentration, sleeping issues and fatigue, and an increase in nervousness and stress which can be the beginning of another set of health problems. If you’ve experienced any of these due to noisy working conditions, immediately report these health conditions to your supervisor.
There are two methods called ‘controls,’ used to eliminate noise hazards; administrative and engineering. Administrative controls are changes that can reduce or eliminate worker exposure, while engineering controls are changes that reduce the sound levels in the facility. When working to eliminate noise hazards, costs add up. Here are a range of four cost-effective ways to reduce or eliminate occupational noise at any facility:
Eliminating Noise Hazards
1. Machine Maintenance — The number one cost effective engineering control used to reduce industrial noise hazards is to make sure that all machinery being used is properly maintained. Machinery where metal on metal contact is present should be lubricated regularly. This type of ‘preventative maintenance’ can extend the life of machinery and save production time from unexpected failures. In many cases, low level noise hazards can be solved all together with proper machine maintenance, as in this story of one of North America’s top bottling companies.
2. Limits shifts — Limiting exactly how long workers are exposed to noise hazards is an administrative control that can greatly reduce negative health effects. This can be an alternative to running a costly hearing conservation program for employees, but as this case study from the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) will tell you, the costs associated with the time spent managing noise hazards will always outweigh the costs of attempting to fix worker’s hearing.
3. Enclose or Isolate the Noise — This is one way that a little engineering combined with a little capital can result in the reduction or elimination of a noise hazard. If there are large non-human operated machines in a work area, when possible, move these machines away from workers or into less populated rooms. If moving the machinery isn’t an option, an enclosure can be built and appropriately labeled to reduce noise levels. If humans are required as operators, an enclosure with an entrance can be constructed and proper PPE provided. Working in these enclosures may require a shorter shift, if the sound produced inside the enclosure requires it.
4. Properly Used PPE — This is the last resort method to deal with a noise hazards. It does not address the problem at the source but acts as a last line of defense for your ears. Proper PPE to protect hearing includes earplugs and ear muffs, often worn together. PPE should be used either in response to low level noise hazards or as a temporary solution until the source of the noise can be controlled or modified.