The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that approximately 22 million workers are exposed each year to potentially damaging noise. U.S. businesses have paid stiff penalties for not protecting workers from dangerous noise levels, as well. Injuries can include temporary or permanent hearing loss and can create physical and psychological stress; reduce productivity; and interfere with communication and concentration. These symptoms can also contribute to workplace accidents and injuries by making it difficult to hear warning signals.
OSHA regulates workplace noise by requiring companies to limit the exposure of their workers to high noise levels. In order to ensure that workers are protected in environments with high noise levels (those greater than OSHA-required levels), it is imperative for companies to have a hearing conservation program in place.
Noise and hearing conservation is addressed in specific standards for recordkeeping and general industry. Specifically, section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, often referred to as the General Duty Clause, requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees’ employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” (This section also can be used to address hazards for which there are no specific standards, such as noise in agricultural operations.)
Occupational noise exposure is addressed specifically by OSHA’s Subpart G–Occupational health and environmental control-1910.95, Occupational noise exposure. Its directives include Enforcement Guidance for Personal Protective Equipment in General Industry; Hearing Conservation Program; and Occupational Noise Exposure; Hearing Conservation.
Individual state standards exist, as well. There are 28 OSHA-approved State Plans that operate state-wide occupational safety and health programs. State Plans are required to have standards and enforcement programs that are at least as effective as OSHA’s; some might have different or more stringent requirements.
Why Have a Hearing Conservation Program?
Obviously, the purpose of any hearing conservation program is to prevent occupational hearing loss and comply with OSHA Standard CFR 1910.95—Occupational Noise Exposure Hearing Conservation Amendment. But it’s also important to understand why this standard exists. To do that, one must explore the realities of what happens when human ears are exposed to repeated, loud noise.
It’s estimated that one in 10 Americans has a hearing loss that affects his or her ability to understand normal speech. Excessive noise exposure is the most common cause of such hearing loss. Some workers with long-term loss have developed ways of adapting to the gradual onset of the disease.
The effect of noise is real and can be devastating. Workers who also develop tinnitus (constant ringing in the ears) can find this to be unbearable. The important thing to note is that, no matter what a person’s present level of hearing loss, it is never too late or too hard to prevent further damage. Workers who already have serious hearing loss have even greater reason for saving the hearing they have left.
Often, employers ask if their employees can hear other people and/or machine problems if they are wearing personal hearing protection gear. The answer is yes. Just as sunglasses help vision in very bright light, so do hearing protectors enhance speech understanding in very noisy places. Even in a quiet setting, a person with normal hearing who is wearing hearing protectors should be able to understand a regular conversation. Hearing protectors do slightly reduce the ability of those with damaged hearing or poor comprehension of language to understand normal conversation. However, it is essential that persons with impaired hearing wear earplugs or muffs to prevent further inner ear damage. It has been argued that hearing protectors might reduce a worker’s ability to hear the noises that signify an improperly functioning machine. However, most workers readily adjust to the quieter sounds and can still detect such problems.
Hearing protection is more than simply providing workers with protective headgear. As stated above, a written hearing conservation program is required by OSHA “whenever employee noise exposures equal or exceed an 8-hour, time-weighted average sound level (TWA) of 85 decibels (dB) measured on the A scale (slow response) or, equivalently, a dose of 50%.” This 8-hour time-weighted average is known as an exposure action value.
The key elements of an organization’s hearing conservation program should include:
- Noise exposure measurements
- High-exposure areas or jobs
- Audiometric testing and follow-up
- Employee education
- Engineering and administrative noise exposure control
- Personal hearing protection
Many companies provide assistance to industries needing hearing/noise protection. Some are devoted to assessing a company’s hearing protection needs; they assist by performing tests and analyses to determine compliance with OSHA noise guidelines and implementing effective soundproofing to reduce exposure of employees to high noise levels. In some cases, it might be possible to reduce noise levels sufficiently to eliminate OSHA requirements for a hearing conservation program, thus improving productivity, ensuring employee health and resulting in significant savings.
In addition to devices for noise reduction, many companies produce acoustic panels that can be made for industrial use. These high-performance, durable and versatile panels increase the intelligibility of speech; mitigate distracting, unpleasant and even intolerable auditory conditions; and can decrease the risk of harm from exposure to excessive noise. For example, Eckel’s pre-engineered acoustic panels come in a range of sizes and styles and can be readily positioned within the host room to achieve optimal noise reduction performance. Available in aluminum or steel, they can be customized and finished to fit and complement any architectural layout. Easy to install during new construction or as a retrofit item, acoustic panels can be an economical and effective means to controlling noise. WMHS