OSHA provides clear and established standards for noise exposure, and a variety of options for hearing protection exist to help adhere to these workplace requirements. However, hearing safety is still an often overlooked occupational hazard.

  • About 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise levels each year in the United States.
  • As a result of inadequate hearing protection in the workplace, approximately 14% of all occupational illnesses in recent years involved hearing loss.
  • The above numbers include about 23,000 cases of permanent hearing impairment.
  • Most cases — about 82% — of occupational hearing loss happen in manufacturing.

Hearing loss from high noise levels is often permanent, and neither surgery nor hearing devices can correct this type of hearing loss. Even short periods of exposure, especially when repeated and prolonged, lead to permanent hearing loss. In addition, chronic exposure to loud noise often…

  • Leads to ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
  • Causes physical and psychological stress.
  • Reduces productivity.
  • Interferes with communication channels.

Understanding noise exposure, in general, helps reduce the potential for hearing loss in the workplace. Avoiding the problems mentioned above also includes adhering to the standards and guidelines provided and making appropriate hearing protection available to workers. In addition, using noise controls as a first line of defense significantly helps reduce hazardous exposure and limits or minimizes risk to hearing.

Understanding Noise Exposure

Exposure to excessive noise depends on several factors. Noise exposure involves the loudness of the noise (in decibels/dB) as well the duration of exposure. Other factors involve whether or not an employee moves between work areas with different noise levels, if noises come from multiple sources at once, and if noises are constant or sporadic like with nail guns and punch presses.

Man Talking Loud

In general, the higher the noise level, the less time it takes for hearing damage to occur. A good rule of thumb is that if a worker has to raise his voice to talk to someone only an arm’s length away, the environment likely has damaging noise levels. Other indications include ringing or humming in ears and experiencing temporary hearing changes after leaving work.

Adhering to Standards & Guidelines

OSHA provides a chart telling the hours per day a person can be exposed to a certain sound level before risking hearing damage. Note that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)  recommends maximum noise exposure levels that are slightly different than OSHA’s standards.

To help in the effort to adhere to its requirements, OSHA requires implementing a Hearing Conservation Program for workplaces where workers are exposed to a time-weighted average noise level of 85dB.

Hearing conservation programs strive to prevent initial occupational hearing loss and to preserve and protect remaining hearing. They also equip workers with the knowledge about hearing protection devices necessary to safeguard themselves.

Determining whether or not noise is a problem in the workplace is the onus of the employer who must determine the length of time and exposure for employees. Employers are then responsible for providing the appropriate hearing protection for exposed workers.

Options for Hearing Protection

Hearing protection in the workplace should bring noise exposure levels within acceptable limits as determined by OSHA.

Man Wearing Earmuffs

There are two basic options available for hearing protection:

  • Earplugs: Made from a variety of materials, earplugs come in single-use, preformed/molded, corded, uncorded and banded. The Howard Leight Series of Earplugs provides multiple examples of these various options, and they can be purchased by the pair or by the box.
  • Earmuffs: Available in a variety of designs and features, earmuffs provide protection by covering the entire ear. Options include dielectric, behind-the-ear and folding styles as well as multi-position, sport and radio earmuffs. Again, the Howard Leight Series of Ear Muffs provides a solid line of earmuffs with these and more options.

Choosing appropriate hearing protection is important. Just as too little protection can damage ears, too much protection can lead to communication breakdown. This can increase the potential for other safety hazards. Know both the danger of a lack of appropriate hearing protection as well as The Danger of Too Much Hearing Protection in the Workplace.

Noise Controls

In conjunction with providing appropriate hearing protection for employees, employers can also utilize various noise controls to help reduce or even eliminate hazardous exposure. There are two types of noise controls, engineering controls and administrative controls.

Engineering controls reduce sound exposure by modifying or replacing equipment. They also make physical changes at the source or in the path of the noise.

Administrative controls include…

  • Adjusting timing of using noisy equipment.
  • Limiting access to noise equipment.
  • Providing quiet areas for employees.

Reducing the potential for hearing loss in the workplace requires a combination of proper hearing protection and noise control efforts. These work best when carried out through an employee/employer partnership that determines the best options for each person and situation.