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The industrial revolution brought with it many new hazards for our hearing. Even those of us who don’t work in manufacturing are now exposed to potentially damaging noise levels in our workplaces on loading docks, at loud bars or nightclubs, and many other spaces where noise levels are high.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established firm guidelines in the 1970s regarding the amount of noise to which a worker can be exposed on the job. These guidelines are credited with the decline in hearing loss that Americans experienced around the end of the 20th century, when the average age of onset of what is known as “age-related hearing loss” shifted from 55 to 65. It is thought that occupational noise was contributing to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) that drove the statistics toward an earlier onset of age-related hearing loss.
How Loud Is Too Loud?
OSHA’s standard is based on our understanding of how much noise causes hearing loss. Sounds as low as 85 dBA (decibels A-weighted) can cause permanent hearing loss after an 8-hour period of exposure, a typical workday for most Americans. 85 dBA is about the level of noise you experience while operating a gas-powered lawn mower.
For every additional 3 dBA of volume, the safe period of exposure is cut in half.
- 85 dBA – 8 hours
- 88 dBA – 4 hours
- 91 dBA – 2 hours
- 94 dBA – 1 hour
- 97 dBA – ½ hour
- 100 dBA – 15 minutes
100 dBA is about the noise level you experience while riding a motorcycle, or at the average high school dance. Hearing loss sets in after 15 minutes of exposure to 100 dBA.
This trend continues until around 125 dBA, at which point hearing loss is caused immediately on exposure to the sound. This means that the report from a single shot by a firearm causes immediate hearing loss.
How Do You Know Your Workplace Is Too Loud?
Most workplaces where loud sound is an issue have already taken steps to meet OSHA standards. They will provide training in hearing protection, provide hearing protection to employees working in unsafe areas, and pay for annual hearing tests to ensure that employees’ ears are being protected effectively. If your workplace feels too loud but is not already doing these things, you should contact OSHA to report a potential violation.
Signs that your workplace may be too loud include:
- You hear ringing in your ears by the end of the workday.
- Standing at arm’s length from a coworker, you must shout to be heard.
- You have temporary hearing loss at the end of the workday.
You may wish to measure the noise levels in your workplace to be sure they are safe. This can be accomplished with devices such as sound pressure level meters, noise dosimeters, and octave band analyzers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also offers a meter app for iOS devices that can give you a ballpark reading of the noise levels in your workplace, or anywhere else you go.
Measuring the sound in your workplace gives you an objective determination about whether your employer needs to implement hearing safety measures, and measuring other environments you may visit will help you to know whether you should protect your hearing while you are not on the job.
Hearing Conservation Programs
A hearing conservation program is the comprehensive system by which an employer protects its’ employees’ hearing. Hearing conservation programs include education about noise standards and protection, the protection itself, and other means of reducing the amount of noise to which workers are exposed. These may include engineering controls, or administrative controls.
Engineering controls are means by which the environment around the worker is altered in order to deliver less noise to the worker’s listening position. These might include:
- Replacing or modifying noisy equipment
- Ensuring proper maintenance of equipment, such as lubrication, which drives noise down
- Erecting walls or sound-proof curtains that limit the amount of noise that reaches the worker
- Enclosing noisy machines in a separate room
Administrative controls are ways to reduce a worker’s amount of exposure to sources of noise that are not otherwise modifiable. These might include:
- Running the noisiest machines when the fewest workers are present
- Limiting the amount of continuous time a worker can spend near a source of noise
- Providing quiet spaces for periodic breaks
- Increasing the remove at which a workstation sits from a noise source
If your firm is interested in establishing a hearing conservation program, contact us today to find out how we can help!