Controlling occupational noise can be one of the most cost-effective yet important facets of protection that companies can provide for their employees. In the United States, every year, approximately 30 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise. Noise-induced hearing loss can be reduced or eliminated through engineering controls and hearing conservation programs. Even though hearing loss is one of the most common occupational illnesses, it is often ignored because there are no visible effects, it develops over a period of time, and with the exception of rare cases, there is no pain. Persons experience a progressive loss of communication, socialization, and response to their environment.
If you work in an industrial setting or operate loud machinery, you may experience short-term problems from too much noise, and your ears feel stuffed up, or you have temporary ringing in the ears (tinnitus.) Repeated exposures to loud noise can lead to permanent, incurable loss of hearing or tinnitus. Employers should reduce the noise exposure to below 85 dB (decibels.) Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is a number that appears on the labels of all hearing protection products sold in the U.S. This rating equals the level of noise reduction in decibels provided by the particular type of protective equipment (earmuff, earplugs) in a laboratory setting. Since these conditions may be different from the actual working circumstance, the real work setting should have a walk-around survey, and possibly more complete evaluation to screen for noise exposure. By checking the particular areas and how long the noise exists, needs for the correct protection can be determined.
For factory or other environments, employees should choose options that decrease workplace noise levels. They should select hearing protection that is comfortable, convenient, and easy to put on and off as needed. Some of the choices are:
- NRR Earmuffs: completely cover the ear.
- Canal Caps: earplugs that are on a metal or plastic band that can go around the neck when taken off.
- Premolded, reusable plugs: silicone, plastic, or rubber – “one size fits all,” as well as available in various sizes.
- Expandable foam earplugs: made of formable material designed to expand and conform to the shape of each individual’s ear canal.
Employers understand the risks associated with not controlling the noise level in their business, such as:
- When employees cannot hear clearly, they may miss warnings from other workers and may be unable to avoid an accident.
- Creates stress.
- Reduces productivity.
- If the noise level is 80 dB, persons have to speak very loudly to be heard.
- If the level is between 85 and 90 dB, persons have to shout to be heard.
- If the level is above 95 dB, persons would have to move closer to hear each other at all.
For example, after a survey is done of the work environment, if the time-weighted average noise level of, say 97 dB, the worker would need earmuffs with an NRR rating of at least 16 or earplugs with an NRR rating of at least 24, based on the ratings on the packaging.
Not only can persons get hearing damage or loss from their work environment if they do not wear the proper protective gear, but young persons should pay heed to their parents’ advice to turn their music down. When our son was a teenager, we could hear him a block away from the house, because the music was so loud in his truck. I have noticed our grandson’s I-pod is so loud, I can hear the beat of the music he’s listening to with the speakers in his ears! (Evidentally, they didn’t listen to me!) Persons have been known to have hearing damage from noise levels at events such as World Cup soccer, football games, car races and other sporting venues. It’s a good idea to invest in a pair of earplugs if you plan to attend a noisy concert or any loud event.
Employers must make a decision that if there is a risk to their employees from exposure to noise, on how they can prevent or control this exposure to all sources of noise, even personal stereos. Regular hearing checkups for employees can be useful to find out if they are experiencing any loss of hearing. A unique tool, (individual dosimeter) is a personal sound noise measurement device. This system consists of a small dosimeter that is worn by employees in a shirt pocket or on the back of a hardhat. It has special earplugs or an earmuff with integrated microphones that record real-time, in-ear noise levels, with a connecting harness. An infrared reader allows safety managers to retrieve data from the dosimeter at the end of each shift or work-week and analyze the results on a personal computer. The Personal Attenuation Rating determines the effectiveness of the employee’s earplug over a range of frequencies. Then safety managers know if their employees are getting the best protection, or if they need additional training on how to fit their earplugs, or try something different.
Think about this: noise-induced hearing loss is the second most-often reported occupational injury, and hearing loss is permanent and irreversible.
Sources: OSHA, NIOSH, HSME