Noise-related hearing loss is one of the top worker health problems in the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), almost 125,000 workers have experienced severe hearing loss since 2004. Not only does loud noise create hearing loss, it can also cause ringing in the ears, a stuffy ear feeling, stress and decreased productivity. Noise safety in the workplace is a vital part of a healthy work environment.
Noise Safety Limits
Sound is measured in decibels using A-weighted sound levels, or dBA, designed to match the perception of loudness in your ear. A jackhammer is between 90 and 100 dBA, while a conversation is about 60 dBA and a whisper is 30 to 40 dBA. In an eight-hour workday, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) allows a maximum of 90 dBA per day. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends levels of 85 dBA and below during an eight-hour day.
Warnings of a Noisy Workplace
There are signs that a workplace may be too noisy for proper ear health. One is having to shout in order for a co-worker to hear you if he's just an arm's length away. Also, experiencing temporary hearing loss or ringing in your ears after leaving work are signs your workplace is too noisy.
Modifying equipment, or "engineering controls," is one method for increasing noise safety in a particularly loud work environment. Most loud equipment can be modified or replaced with less noisy alternatives. In addition, changes can be made at the source of the noise or along the path the noise travels to reduce what a nearby worker actually hears. Examples include choosing tools made specifically to produce lower decibel sound, maintaining all equipment, isolating the source of the noise in a soundproof enclosure, or placing a sound barrier between the source of the noise and employees.
Reducing Worker Exposure
Changes can also be made in the workplace to decrease exposure to dangerous decibel levels. OSHA recommends only using noisier machines during shifts that have fewer people, or limiting the amount of time any one person spends working near a loud source. Hearing protection devices can also be used, such as earmuffs or earplugs, but OSHA views this as a less preferable option. Changing workplace habits is a better way to minimize hearing damage.
Hearing Conservation Programs
Any workplace with noise level of 85 dBA or higher over an eight-hour workday, or 90 dBA or higher in the construction industry, must participate in a hearing conservation program. OSHA requires the program to include noise monitoring, noise safety education, professional evaluations of workers' hearing, and proper selection and evaluation of noise safety programs.
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