Turn it Down, Please!

In yesterday’s post, we reported that hearing loss is the most common work-related injury in the United States. It affects about 22 million Americans each year and costs businesses $242 million in workers’ compensation benefits.

The bad news is that once you’ve lost your hearing, you can’t get it back. The good news is that hearing loss is preventable.

At 88 dBA, it would take four hours to cause hearing damage. At 98 dBA, a half an hour. For more information, click on the image for a three-minute podcast.

At 88 dBA, it would take four hours to cause hearing damage. At 98 dBA, a half an hour. For more information, click on the image for a three-minute podcast.

Here are a few tips for turning up the volume on your efforts to protect workers from occupational noise exposure.

Do you have a noise problem?
You would probably expect to uncover noise exposure issues on construction sites, in manufacturing plants and at rock concerts. But even relatively quiet office environments can surpass OSHA’s noise thresholds. A few red flags can help you determine whether you need to explore the issue in your workplace:

  • You must raise your voice to be heard.
  • You can’t hear someone 3 feet away from you.
  • Speech around you sounds muffled or dull after you leave the noisy area.
  • You have pain or ringing in your ears (this is called “tinnitus”).

If any of these red flags sound familiar, you might have a noise problem. Fortunately, noise sampling is simple. At least the baseline variety is.

Smartphone developers offer apps that use the devices’ built-in microphone or an external microphone to sample noise levels quickly. Accuracy can be suspect with apps, however, so don’t rely on them for regulatory compliance. If you need a more accurate measure of noise, turn to a sound level meter or a dosimeter.

Do you need a hearing conservation program?
Once you’ve sampled the noise in your workplace, what’s next? There are two noise level measurements that trigger action on your part.

How Loud is It?
10 dBA – Normal breathing
40 dBA – Refrigerator humming
50-60 dBA – Quiet office
78 dBA – Washing machine
85-90 dBA – Lawnmower, food blender
100 dBA – Cement mixer
110 dBA – Jackhammer
Source: National Institute on Deafness and
Other Communication Disorders

85 decibels (dBA) – If workers are exposed to a time weighted average noise level of 85 dBA or higher over an eight-hour work shift, employers must implement a hearing conservation program. Hearing conservation programs require employers to measure noise levels; provide free training, annual hearing exams and hearing protection; and evaluate the adequacy of hearing protectors.

90 decibels – If your employees are exposed to a time weighted average noise level of 90 dBA or higher, you must implement a hearing conservation program and take steps to reduce employee exposure below 90 dBA. You can control noise exposure by using the hierarchy of controls

Use the hierarchy of controls
Safety professionals use the hierarchy of controls to rank hazard control measures by their effectiveness. There are three tiers of control measures in the hierarchy:

  1. Engineering controls eliminate hazards at their source. Engineering controls should always be your first choice for controlling workplace hazards. Buying quieter equipment is an example of an effective engineering control for noise exposure. You can also place barriers between employees and the noise source.
  2. Administrative controls should be your second choice. Administrative controls involve changes in work practices to control hazard exposure. For example, you could limit the time employees work in noisy environments by rotating them among tasks. Or you could reposition workers farther away from the noise source.
  3. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is your last line of defense against any workplace hazard. That’s because the equipment can fail, and it can give workers a false sense of security. PPE for noise exposure includes earmuffs and earplugs. If you choose PPE, check the noise reduction rating on the packaging to make sure it meets your needs. You can also visit NIOSH’s website to test your hearing protection.

For more information on occupational noise exposure, visit these sites:


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