According to OSHA, twenty-two million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise at work each year. Last year, U.S. business paid more than $1.5 million in penalties for not protecting workers from noise.

While it’s impossible to put a number to the human toll of hearing loss, an estimated $242 million is spent annually on workers’ compensation for hearing loss disability.

How do you know if your workplace may be too noisy? Noise may be a problem in your workplace if:

§  You hear ringing or humming in your ears when you leave work.

§  You have to shout to be heard by a coworker an arm’s length away.

§  You experience temporary hearing loss when leaving work.

What can be done to reduce the hazard from noise? Noise controls are the first line of defense against excessive noise exposure. The use of these controls should aim to reduce the hazardous exposure to the point where the risk to hearing is eliminated or minimized. With the reduction of even a few decibels, the hazard to hearing is reduced, communication is improved, and noise-related annoyance is reduced. There are several ways to control and reduce worker exposure to noise in a workplace: engineering controls and administrative controls.

Engineering controls that reduce sound exposure levels are available and technologically feasible for most noise sources. Engineering controls involve modifying or replacing equipment, or making related physical changes at the noise source or along the transmission path to reduce the noise level at the worker’s ear. In some instances the application of a relatively simple engineering noise control solution reduces the noise hazard to the extent that further requirements of the OSHA Noise standard (e.g., audiometric testing (hearing tests), hearing conservation program, provision of hearing protectors, etc.) are not necessary. Examples of inexpensive, effective engineering controls include some of the following:

§  Choose low-noise tools and machinery (e.g., Buy Quiet Roadmap (NASA)).

§  Maintain and lubricate machinery and equipment (e.g., oil bearings).

§  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 the worker exposure to noise. Examples include:

§  Operating noisy machines during shifts when fewer people are exposed.

§  Limiting the amount of time a person spends at a noise source.

§  Providing quiet areas where workers can gain relief from hazardous noise sources (e.g., construct a sound proof room where workers’ hearing can recover – depending upon their individual noise level and duration of exposure, and time spent in the quiet area).

§  Restricting worker presence to a suitable distance away from noisy equipment.

Controlling noise exposure through distance is often an effective, yet simple and inexpensive administrative control. This control may be applicable when workers are present but are not actually working with a noise source or equipment. Increasing the distance between the noise source and the worker, reduces their exposure. In open space, for every doubling of the distance between the source of noise and the worker, the noise is decreased by 6 dBA.

Hearing protection devices (HPDs), such as earmuffs and plugs, are considered an acceptable but less desirable option to control exposures to noise and are generally used during the time necessary to implement engineering or administrative controls, when such controls are not feasible, or when worker’s hearing tests indicate significant hearing damage.

An effective hearing conservation program must be implemented by employers in general industry whenever worker noise exposure is equal to or greater than 85 dBA for an 8-hour exposure or in the construction industry when exposures exceed 90 dBA for an 8-hour exposure. This program strives to prevent initial occupational hearing loss, preserve and protect remaining hearing, and equip workers with the knowledge and hearing protection devices necessary to protect them. Key elements of an effective hearing conservation program include:

§  Workplace noise sampling including personal noise monitoring which identifies which employees are at risk from hazardous levels of noise.

§  Informing workers at risk from hazardous levels of noise exposure of the results of their noise monitoring.

§  Providing affected workers or their authorized representatives with an opportunity to observe any noise measurements conducted.

§  Maintaining a worker audiometric testing program (hearing tests) which is a professional evaluation of the health effects of noise upon individual worker’s hearing.

§  Implementing comprehensive hearing protection follow-up procedures for workers who show a loss of hearing (standard threshold shift) after completing baseline (first) and yearly audiometric testing.

§  Proper selection of hearing protection based upon individual fit and manufacturer’s quality testing indicating the likely protection that they will provide to a properly trained wearer.

§  Evaluate the hearing protectors attenuation and effectiveness for the specific workplace noise.

§  Training and information that ensures the workers are aware of the hazard from excessive noise exposures and how to properly use the protective equipment that has been provided.

§  Data management of and worker access to records regarding monitoring and noise sampling.

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