There have been nearly 125,000 cases of permanent hearing loss in workers since 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unfortunately, there is no fix for permanent hearing loss caused by loud noise. Neither surgery nor a hearing aid can restore proper ear functioning.
In addition to hearing loss, exposure to high levels of noise can result in physical and psychological stress, reduced productivity, poor communication, and accidents and injuries caused by a worker’s inability to hear warning signals.
What Should You Look Out For?
Common indications of hazardous noise levels include:
- Ringing or buzzing in the ears.
- Having to shout to be heard by someone at arm’s length away.
- Experiencing temporary hearing loss after leaving a noisy location.
The extent of inner ear damage and the severity of hearing loss depend on the amount of noise to which workers are exposed and the duration of exposure time. The length of your exposure to noise is as critical as the volume. Continuous noise throughout a shift is more damaging than a few minutes at a time. However, along with developing gradually over months and years of exposure to less intense noise, hearing loss can occur from a single intense sound, such as an explosion.
How Loud Is Too Loud?
Both temporary and permanent hearing loss are likely to occur at levels of 90 decibels and above. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set the maximum safe noise level at 90 decibels of exposure over eight hours. If work noise levels reach 85 decibels or higher employers must institute a hearing-conservation program.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology provides references for the decibels of different sounds:
- Subway: 90 decibels.
- Power saw: 110 decibels.
- Race car: 130 decibels.
- Fireworks: 150 decibels.
- Shotgun: 170 decibels.
What Can Be Done to Protect Your Hearing?
Companies can implement several control measures to reduce workers’ exposure to hazardous noise levels.
Engineering controls involve making physical changes at the noise source or along the transmission path to reduce noise. These controls include:
- Choosing low-noise tools and machinery.
- Maintaining and lubricating machinery and equipment.
- Placing a barrier, such as sound walls or curtains, between the source of the sound and employees.
- Enclosing or isolating the noise source.
Administrative controls are changes in the workplace that reduce or eliminate workers’ exposure to noise. Examples include:
- Operating noisy machines during shifts when fewer people are exposed.
- Limiting the amount of time a person spends in a noisy area.
- Providing quiet zones where workers can get relief from hazardous noise sources.
Hearing-protection devices should be used when noise levels exceed 90 decibels. If an employee already suffers from hearing loss, the individual should use these devices when sound levels reach 85 decibels.
Three types of commonly used hearing-protection devises are:
- Ear inserts (earplugs). Ear inserts offer the best hearing protection against lower-frequency-range noises. They are available in preformed, custom-made or formable disposable varieties.
- Earmuffs. Offering the most protection against higher-frequency-range noises, earmuffs protect the entire ear from noise, dirt, grease and chemical exposure. The seal must fit properly over the ears for optimal protection.
- Canal caps. While these offer the least amount of hearing protection, canal caps are ideal for situations in which hearing-protection devices must be taken off frequently.
Establishing a Hearing-Conservation Program
To stay compliant with OSHA standards, employers must develop a hearing-conservation program if noise levels exceed 85 decibels. Steps include:
- Surveying the workplace and assessing individual jobs to determine noise levels and the hazards to employees associated with them.
- Establishing audiometric testingto determine baseline audiograms for affected employees. This will determine how sensitive your workers are to noise. You must inform them of their exposure levels and any hearing loss they have, and you must retest them annually.
- Educating employees about hearing-conservation requirements.
- Providing hearing-protection equipment and training on its selection, handling, storage, use and cleaning.
Hearing conservation is an important issue, especially for those who work in jobs that expose them to hazardous noise levels. To preserve good hearing, it’s critical that organizations and employees be proactive in preventing the hazards that can damage it.
Bethany Carpenter is an events & e-communications coordinator at Vivid Learning Systems, an eLearning safety solutions provider.
Republished with permission. © 2013 Vivid Learning Systems. All Rights Reserved.
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