Is there a lot of noise in your work environment? Is the noise level potentially damaging to your hearing? If so, then you are among the approximately 22 million American workers who are exposed to hazardous noise on the job. What safety experts find most concerning about loud noise at work is that the effects of excessive noise exposure are usually not immediate. Rather, hearing loss can take years, sometimes decades, to occur. Consequently, workers often fail to take the necessary precautions to protect their ears because they are not thinking about the long-term damage from prolonged noise exposure. This has resulted in around 125,000 cases of significant, permanent hearing loss in a 10 year span.
Your reaction to this might be, “There isn’t much I can do about the noise at my job,” and to a point you are correct; the equipment and machinery around you are going to make noise. However, there are certain controls you can implement to minimize employee risk exposure. First and foremost, employees must wear their hearing protection devices (e.g., ear plugs) at all times in the hazardous noise areas of your job site. The permissible exposure limit (PEL) averaged across an 8 hour workday is 90 dBA, so Federal regulations require employees at work sites that exceed this level to wear hearing protection.
The safety blind spots associated with not wearing hearing protection fall potentially under all four factors of the S.A.F.E. Model of SafetyDNA, the most obvious of which are Follows Rules and Exhibits Caution. Therefore, working with employees who violate hearing protection policies to improve their hearing safety behaviors will greatly reduce the potential for permanent damage. You may also consider reviewing your safety protocols to ensure that you are providing workers with proper training and information about hearing conservation.
Beyond employee adherence to safety rules, you may be able to utilize other controls for reducing noise exposure. For example, engineering controls refer to technologically feasible measures for reducing sound exposure, such as maintaining and lubricating machinery or placing a sound barrier around the noise source. Additionally, OSHA offers a list of administrative controls that managers can use to minimize the risk:
Operating noisy machines during shifts with the fewest employees exposed
Limiting the amount of time employees can work near a noise source
Providing quiet areas for employees to get a break from the noise
Restricting worker presence to a suitable distance away from a noise source
Establishing a hearing conservation program (required at sites exceeding the PEL)
Some of these suggestions may be more feasible at your work site than others, so take advantage of those that you can logistically implement. Encourage employee participation in this process as well, because they tend to have the greatest exposure to noise, and thus may have insights for improving hearing protection. Many incidents of hearing loss from occupational noise exposure are preventable, and because completely eliminating the noise at work is often not an option, we must take every measure possible to minimize its effects.