Safety equipment is designed to protect workers from a great variety of hazards. But when we think of severe injuries that can occur in the workplace, we might not think of the importance of protecting our ears.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, approximately 22 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels while at work. Hearing loss disability also results in an estimated $242 million in workers' compensation payments each year. All told, that makes hearing loss one of the most common work-related illnesses in the U.S.
"Of workers exposed to noise on the job, 23 percent experienced long-term hearing difficulty."
In a study released in January, NIOSH found 23 percent of U.S. workers who have been exposed to noise on the job went on to experience hearing difficulty. Additionally, another 15 percent have experienced tinnitus, the sensation of ringing or buzzing in one or both ears even when no source of sound is present. Nine percent of workers experience both these conditions.
"Hearing loss can greatly impact a worker's overall health and well-being," NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard, said in a statement. Howard added that hazardous levels of occupational noise exposure should be avoided to prevent hearing damage.
As Safety + Health magazine reported, hearing damage is especially dangerous because while ringing, buzzing or loss of hearing from short-term noise exposure can be overcome with rest, if exposure is sustained, it may result in irreversible long-term damage. Hearing loss in the workplace can present safety risks if workers are unable to hear alarms or critical communications from other workers.
"Hearing loss itself is considered a health issue," NIOSH researcher Dr. Amanda Azman told Safety + Health. "It's a negative health outcome of certain activities, but it leads to a safety issue in the workplace."
Dangerous noise in work environments
According to the NIOSH study, workers in certain sectors face greater risk of hearing damage than others. For example, workers in the manufacturing industry had a significantly higher risk for both tinnitus and co-occurrence of tinnitus and hearing difficulty. The mining sector was found to have the highest of frequency for hazardous noise exposure of any industry.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets limits on how many decibels of noise workers can be exposed to based on a weighted average over an 8 hour day. OSHA's permissible exposure limit is 90 A-weighted decibels (dBA) for 8 hours. However, if the noise level increases by 5 dBA, the amount of time the worker can be exposed to the noise level is reduced by 50 percent. For example, while a worker can be exposed to 87 dBA for 8 hours, if the noise level increases to 92 dBA, the worker can only be around the noise source for 4 hours. For reference, the noise of a heavy truck comes in between 85-90 dBA, while a jackhammer will measure between 90-100 dBA.
"Hearing loss one is of the most common work-related illnesses in the U.S."
While these are general guidelines, there are several warning signs that noise is exceeding safe levels for an individual worker. These include:
- Hearing ringing or humming at the end of the workday.
- Not being able to hear another worker speak at a conversational level from an arm's length away
- Experiencing temporary hearing loss at any point
How to better protect workers
If workers must be exposed to high noise volumes in order to complete their tasks, OSHA recommends several different methods for preventing permanent hearing damage. One method is to utilize engineering controls to reduce noise levels either at the source or in the path of transmission to the worker's ear. This may involve utilizing low-noise tools and machinery, properly maintaining or lubricating equipment, enclosing the noise source or installing sound walls or curtains.
Employers may also utilize administrative controls to lessen the impact of noise in the work environment. Examples include limiting the amount of time an individual worker spends near the noise source, keeping workers as far away as possible from the noise source and provide quiet environments, such as soundproof rooms, where workers can recover from noise exposure.
In addition to all the above, employers can provide workers with hearing protection devices, such as earmuffs and plugs, though OSHA notes this method is often less effective than engineering and administrative changes.
OSHA also requires employers to implement an effective hearing conservation program in any industries where noise exposure is equal to or greater than 85 dBA for an 8 hour period, with the exception of the construction industry where the exposure limit is set at 90 dBA for an 8 hour period. This program includes training workers to recognize hazardous noise exposure, fitting them for noise protection equipment, and creating and maintaining an audiometric hearing test program.
As Safety + Health magazine reported, one of the most critical steps of a successful hearing protection program is regular monitoring of noise levels to detect and adapt to changes. After all, a hearing test program will only be helpful in detecting a noise hazard after workers have been exposed.