Hear No Evil: Noise Safety on Worksites

By Heather Perl, Contributor

Despite being a serious potential health hazard, loud noises are often not given enough consideration when trying to establish the safety of a worksite. Loud noises are invisible dangers; they may not be immediately obvious, and many employees and employers don’t realize how much damage occurs over time. Even moderately loud noises can cause permanent hearing eventually, which means a reduction in exposure is necessary.

The Dangers of Loud Noises

Hearing Protection PhotoSome 24% of adults from ages 20-69 show some level of noise-induced hearing loss. Meanwhile, it’s believed that 30 million Americans may be exposed to dangerous levels of noise during their work. When hearing loss occurs, it can make it harder for workers to complete their jobs. It may even damage their earning potential in the future, as well as their quality of life.

As noise damage can be cumulative, it isn’t always immediately obvious that a worksite is dangerous. People might lose their hearing over years or even decades of being in high-volume environments. To that end, there have been some significant studies regarding the safe levels of noise, including safe sustained levels. Work sites need to follow these guidelines, if they are to protect their employees.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is often used to protect employees from loud noises. However, it’s usually better to reduce the exposure to loud noises to begin with. PPE can be cumbersome and introduce other types of danger, such as employees potentially not hearing warnings from each other in a dangerous situation.

Reducing Noise at a Worksite

In industries such as construction, many types of machinery are naturally loud. It’s not always possible to reduce noise at a worksite, but it is possible to make some changes to reduce the overall risk to employees. It’s understood that employers may not be able to entirely secure a worksite, but an employer cannot be negligent about securing their work sites.

  • Always have employees use hearing protection. All workers need to use hearing protection whenever they’re in a dangerously loud area. Employees need to be trained on the proper use of hearing protection, so they can use this protection safely—and they should understand that there are consequences to not following protocol.
  • Look into low-noise machinery. There are machinery options available that reduce the amount of noise at the site. Low-noise machinery may have dampeners designed to reduce the amount of noise produced or have additional insulation to keep the noise in.
  • Audit the site for unnecessary noises. A machine can be brought in to detect the current noise levels of the worksite and determine whether those levels could be potentially dangerous. At the same time, an auditor can walk through the site and determine whether there might be any unnecessary levels of noise, such as machines being run when they don’t need to be run.
  • Install barriers and screens. Barriers, screens and enclosures can all be used to reduce the amount of sound throughout a worksite. These can be erected around louder areas.
  • Use a limited number of employees. Only the employees who are necessary to operate machinery should be exposed to the noise of that machinery; otherwise, the work area should be cleared. Likewise, the machinery should be used only during slow times at the worksite, and employees should be kept as far away from it as possible.
  • Limit the amount of time spent in loud areas. In general, workers shouldn’t be in loud areas for long periods of time. Even with sound protection, it’s still not healthy. Extremely loud areas should be considered restricted, and employees should be in those areas for a limited amount of time.
  • Enact comprehensive employee training. Employees need to be given thorough training regarding their hearing health, especially on work sites that are dangerous. Employees should thoroughly understand the dangers, and they should be trained on the methods that they can use to conserve their hearing.

Regular audits should be conducted to make sure workers are taking the appropriate safety precautions. If there are any issues found, they should be assessed and addressed in a timely fashion.

The Legal Consequences of Noise Damage

When an employee suffers from noise-related damage, it will fall under workers’ compensation. This is true even if the employee made a mistake, such as not wearing their PPE. Workers’ compensation provides a certain amount of coverage but, like all types of coverage, there’s a coverage cap.

If a worksite is found to have a negligent level of damage, the company may be found completely liable. Further, a worksite could be found to have negligent business processes, such as allowing employees to spend irregular amounts of time in high noise environments. Ultimately, the legal consequences of noise damage could be significant, as it could include the earning potential of the employee for the rest of their life.

Many work sites suffer from excessive noise, which can become harmful to employee health. If it does, then employees may need to lodge workers’ compensation claims or liability claims against the organization. It’s in the organization’s best interest to protect its employees, both for employee morale as well as reduced financial risk.

Heather Perl is a Content Writer with Improv Learning.