Noise-related hearing loss is one of the most common occupational health issues. Every year thousands of workers are exposed to workplace noise hazards that result in preventable hearing loss. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has reported that since 2004 nearly 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss. In 2009 alone the BLS reported there were more than 21,000 cases of hearing loss.
Exposure to workplace noise hazards (high noise levels) can cause a permanent hearing loss that cannot be corrected by surgery or a hearing aid. Even a short-term exposure to loud noise can cause a temporary change in hearing. Short-term effects such as feeling like your ears are "stuffed up" or ringing in the ears, may go away after leaving the noisy area. However, repeated exposure to noise hazards can lead to permanent tinnitus or hearing loss.
In addition to hearing damage, noise hazards can:
- Create physical and psychological stress
- Reduce productivity
- Interfere with communication and concentration
- Contribute to workplace accidents and injuries by making it difficult to hear warning signals
The Effects Of Hearing Loss Caused By Noise Hazards
Noise hazard-induced hearing loss limits your ability to hear high frequency sounds. This will make it difficult to understand speech and seriously impairs the ability to communicate. The effects of hearing loss on lifestyle can be significant. It can interfere with the ability to enjoy socializing with friends, playing with children or grandchildren, or participating in other social activities. If serious, hearing loss can lead to psychological and social isolation.
What are the warning signs that your workplace has noise hazards?
Noise hazards may be a problem in your workplace if:
- You hear ringing or humming in your ears after leaving work
- You have to shout to be heard by a coworker an arm's length away
- You experience temporary hearing loss after leaving your workplace
How loud must a noise be, to be a noise hazard?
Noise is measured by sound pressure levels called decibels. The A-weighted sound levels (dBA) closely match the human perception of loudness. Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale which means that a small change in the number of decibels results in a huge change in the amount of noise and the potential damage to a person's hearing.
OSHA 1910.95 sets legal limits on noise exposure in the workplace. These limits are based on a worker's time weighted average over an 8 hour day. 1910.95(c)(1) states that the employer must administer a continuing, effective hearing conservation program whenever manufacturing employee noise exposures equal or exceed an 8-hour time-weighted average sound level (TWA) of 85 decibels measured on the A scale (slow response).
What can be done to reduce noise hazards?
The best option is to use noise hazard controls to reduce worker exposure to a point where the risk to hearing is eliminated or minimized. Even the reduction of a few decibels can improve communication and reduce noise-related annoyance. There are three main categories of techniques for reducing worker exposure to noise hazards in a workplace.
Engineering controls are design changes that reduce sound levels. They involve modifying or replacing equipment, or making other physical changes at the noise source or along the transmission path, to reduce the noise level at the worker's ear. A relatively simple engineering noise control solution can often eliminate a noise hazard such that nothing further needs to be done. Examples of inexpensive, effective engineering controls include the following:
- Choose low-noise tools and machinery
- Maintain and lubricate machinery and equipment
- Place a barrier between the noise source and employee (e.g., sound walls or curtains)
- Enclose or isolate the noise source
Administrative controls are changes in the workplace that reduce or eliminate worker exposure to noise hazards. Examples of noise hazard administrative controls include:
- Operate noisy machines during shifts when fewer people are exposed
- Limit the amount of time a person spends near a noise hazard
- Provide quiet areas where workers can gain relief from noise hazards
- Restrict how close a worker can get to a noise hazard
Controlling noise hazard exposure through maintaining a distance from the noise hazard is often an effective, simple and inexpensive administrative control. Increasing the distance between the noise source and the worker, reduces their exposure to noise. In an open space, for every doubling of the distance between the source of noise and the worker, the noise is decreased by 6 dBA.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as earmuffs and earplugs are considered an acceptable but less desirable option for controlling exposure to noise hazards. They are generally used when a worker is temporarily exposed to a noise hazard and during the time necessary to implement engineering or administrative controls. They are also used when a worker already has significant hearing damage.
Hearing conservation program
Whenever worker noise exposure is equal to or greater than 85 dBA for an 8 hour time period, or in the construction industry when exposure exceeds 90 dBA for an 8 hour period, OSHA requires the employer to have a hearing conservation program. The purpose is to prevent the beginnings of an occupational hearing loss; preserve and protect remaining hearing; and to equip workers with the knowledge and hearing protection devices necessary to protect them. Key elements of an effective hearing conservation program include:
- Conducting workplace noise sampling. This includes using personal noise monitoring devices which identify which employees are exposed to noise hazards.
- Informing workers about risks from noise hazards and the results of their noise monitoring.
- Ensuring affected workers, or their authorized representatives, have an opportunity to observe the noise measurement process.
- Maintaining a worker audiometric testing program (hearing tests). These provide a professional evaluation of the health effects of noise on individual worker's hearing.
- Implementing comprehensive hearing protection procedures for workers who show a loss of hearing after completing baseline and yearly audiometric testing.
- Ensuring proper selection of hearing protection PPE based upon individual fit and the manufacturer's testing.
- Evaluating hearing protection attenuation of PPE and the effectiveness for the specific workplace noise.
- Providing worker training that ensures workers are aware of the effects of noise hazards and how to properly use the protective equipment they have been provided.
- Providing data management and worker access to records of noise monitoring and sampling.
Labels and Signs Protect Workers From Noise Hazards
Labels and signs are used to warn workers about noise hazards, keeping them at a safe distance and informing them about the need for hearing protection. Custom signs and labels improve communication effectiveness by providing specific information about the hazard.
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