Noise in the Workplace
There are an estimated 38 million people in the United States with impaired hearing. Exposure to noise is one of the leading causes of hearing loss. Millions of Americans are exposed to dangerous levels of noise in the workplace and it is estimated that one in four workers exposed to high levels of noise in the workplace will develop a hearing loss.
Professions at Risk
Firefighters, police officers, factory workers, farmers, construction workers, military personnel, heavy industry workers, musicians and entertainment industry professionals all work in environments that pose noise risks. Even office staff employed in crowded office buildings with phones ringing and the constant hum of computers, air conditioners and fans are faced with the annoyance and increased stress noise creates. Noise in the workplace is bothersome. Beyond that, it can pose a safety risk by reducing concentration and increasing worker injuries. Repeated exposure to high levels of noise in the workplace can cause permanent hearing loss.
How Loud is Too Loud?
Standards set by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) indicate that continued exposure to noise over 85 dBA will eventually harm hearing. According to OSHA, the exposure time allowed is cut in half for every 5 decibel increase. For example, if a sound is 95 dBA, then 4 hours of exposure, over time, will cause hearing loss, and exposure to sounds at 115 dBA for just 15 minutes a day, over time, will cause hearing loss. Other groups, such as NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) calculate safe exposure time by decreasing time in half for every 3 decibel increase. The NHCA (National Hearing Conservation Association) is an excellent resource for more information about occupational hearing conservation programs.
Hearing Conservation in the Workplace
If it is not possible to reduce noise levels in the workplace through engineering and/or administrative controls and when noise exposures are at an eight-hour time-weighted average level of 85 dBA or more, OSHA's Hearing Conservation Amendment 29 CFR 1910.95 requires that the employer implement a five-phase hearing conservation program. The program includes noise monitoring to measure sound levels; hearing testing to obtain baseline measures of employees' hearing as well as annual hearing evaluations; employee training on the impact of noise on hearing, the use and purpose of hearing protection and the results of hearing testing; hearing protection made available for all employees; and recordkeeping of all measurements and testing. To avoid noise-induced hearing loss, OSHA recommends that hearing protection be worn in the workplace when loudness levels and exposure times exceed the allowable standards.