Noise is a physical hazard even though you can’t see it or touch it.
Concerts, sporting events, loud music in headphones, and of course loud working environments, can all lead to ear damage and hearing loss. Everyone naturally loses some hearing over time, but you can help dictate the severity and the speed.
“Noise exposure and hearing loss is a big problem in the U.S.,” said Utah State University professor Carl Farley, MSPH, CIH, CSP, in his “Noise Fundamentals” presentation at this year’s Global Learning Summit (GLS). “You’d think we would have it down by now and that the problem would be going away, but it’s not. It’s actually getting worse.”
October is National Protect Your Hearing Month. Yes, normal activities can lead to hearing damage, but for many workers every day at the jobsite can pose a real danger. The CDC estimates 22 million workers each year face exposure to potentially damaging noise levels.
“One in four workers will develop permanent hearing loss,” Farley said. “That impacts not just your work life but your home life.”
Decibels, measures of relative loudness, fall on a measurable scale with zero being the level at which the average person begins to hear and 120 considered the threshold of pain. Measurements higher than 120 are painful and can cause immediate harm.
Average decibel readings of 85 or higher over an 8-hour period trigger OSHA’s requirement for a hearing conservation program and for noise-reducing PPE to be made available to workers. Use of that PPE becomes mandatory when decibel levels reach 90.
Sound level meters and noise dosimeters measure decibel levels. NIOSH has even developed a sound level meter app for iPhones with an accuracy level of plus or minus 2 decibels.
When you don’t have a sound meter available, Farley offers this general rule of thumb: If you must raise your voice to speak to someone three feet away, the decibel level is likely higher than 85.
The good news is that using ear plugs, safety earmuffs or both can lower the effective decibel level.
Like all PPE, however, they are the last line of defense. Ideally you will identify controls to remove the noise hazard. Engineering controls like quieter equipment and sound-absorbing material and administrative controls like time restrictions and quieter methods can reduce exposure.
Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent. Taking steps to mitigate noisy hazards can reduce the speed and extent of loss.