The subject of noise exposures and hearing loss is not new, yet it is still plagues many workplaces. OSHA estimates that approximately 30 million US workers are exposed to excessive noise. Are you or your employees exposed to high sound levels? Which areas of your facility are the loudest? Have employee noise exposures been measured? How do they compare to applicable limits and guidelines?
Nearly everyone knows that repeated exposures to excessive noise cause hearing loss, but did you know that exposures to certain organic solvents, some metals, and carbon monoxide can also cause hearing loss? Whatever the cause, this loss is irreversible - it cannot be fixed by surgery or any other means. To make matters worse, most of us experience hearing loss as we get older. These two types of hearing loss (age- and work-related) combine and often result in a debilitating condition that can cause stress, frustration, and social isolation.
Hearing loss in the workplace causes other problems including a loss of concentration, problems communicating with others, and being unable to hear important sounds like warning signals, emergency alarms, and nearby vehicles. Each of these problems can reduce productivity and more importantly, increase the risk of a safety incident or accident.
How do you know if the sound levels in your workplace are too high? If you or your workers experience ringing in the ears (known as tinnitus) or notice a loss of hearing at the end of your workday that improves while you are away from work, you may be overexposed to noise. In addition, a quick and easy guideline is to ask this question: if someone was standing an arm's length away from me, would I have to raise my voice in order to be understood? If the answer is "yes", then there's a good chance that the sound levels are too high.
The only way to know for certain if the sound levels are too high is to measure noise exposures and compare them to the applicable limits and guidelines. OSHA requires that 8-hour, time-weighted average exposures to noise not exceed 90 decibels (measured on the A scale - slow response, otherwise known as dBA). Exposures exceeding this Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) must be reduced with engineering or administrative controls.
OSHA also requires that employees with 8-hour, time-weighted average noise exposures of 85 dBA or greater be enrolled in a Hearing Conservation Program. Noise monitoring, employee notifications, audiometric testing, and training are key components of your Hearing Conservation Program.
Scientific advancements have occurred since the OSHA limits were published and now demonstrate that significant hearing losses occur at the OSHA 90 dBA limit. As a result, groups such as NIOSH and ACGIH* recommend that 8-hour time-weighted average exposures to noise not exceed 85 dBA. This guideline is more protective and widely accepted.
Noise exposures can be reduced by implementing engineering controls such as enclosures or barriers that are constructed with sound-absorbing materials. Noisy, vibrating surfaces can be coated with damping materials. Preventative maintenance of bearings and proper lubrication of all equipment have important noise reduction benefits. Relocating noisy equipment away from workers can also reduce noise to acceptable levels.
Administrative controls can also reduce noise exposures. These include scheduling work during quiet times and limiting the amount of time that workers can be in noisy areas. Hearing protectors, such as ear plugs and ear muffs are the least preferable control method, and are allowed by OSHA as a last resort when the engineering and administrative controls are infeasible.
Are you or your employees exposed to high sound levels? Which areas of your facility are the loudest? Have employee noise exposures been measured? How do they compare to applicable limits and guidelines? Cashins can help you evaluate noise exposures and ensure that your workers are adequately protected. Click on the button below for a free inquiry.
*National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health
Americal Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists