Can You Hear Me Now?
Noise isn’t just loud and annoying on the job. It can be a safety and health problem as well–a problem OSHA requires you to do something about.
Understanding and applying OSHA standards is at the heart of any safety and health program. When the safety issue is hearing conservation, the standard you need to understand and comply with is the Occupational Noise Exposure Standard (29 CFR 1910.95).
The hearing conservation section of OSHA’s noise exposure standard requires you to establish “a continuing effective hearing conservation program” if your facility generates high noise levels, that is, levels exceeding 85 decibels (dB) on an 8-hour time-weighted average.
For reference, the noise volume in a typical office is about 70-75 dB. A sander emits about 85 dB, factory noise is 80-90 dB, and the sound of a pneumatic drill is about 100 dB. By way of comparison, a whisper is about 10 dB, and a car horn is 120 dB.
An Invisible Risk
Unlike a solvent or a sharp object, the risk posed by noise can’t be seen, which leads some employers and employees to underestimate its importance. In most cases, noise-related hearing loss occurs gradually, starting with a temporary loss that over time can become permanent. Employees with noise-induced hearing loss may not even become aware of the problem until it has reached serious levels, and by that time, the loss can be permanent.
An overly noisy environment can have serious effects on a worker’s ability to communicate as well. Experts say that communicating in noise levels above 85 dB is not satisfactory for the speaker or for the listener. Noise can also mask acoustic warning signals and the sounds of improperly functioning equipment. And that can be a big safety problem.
Excessive noise can negatively affect job performance as well. While routine tasks are not usually affected, complex tasks are, especially as the noise gets louder. Intermittent, unpredictable noise is especially detrimental to optimal functioning.
Although the research is somewhat controversial, there is some evidence of a link between noise exposure and stress diseases such as cardiovascular disorders and ulcers. And some studies have shown that even fairly moderate levels of noise can raise anxiety and increase the risk of antisocial behavior.
There’s also evidence that workers are less fatigued, less irritable, and sleep better when they’re part of a hearing conservation program. They appear to have fewer accidents and absences, too.
Noise Reduction Strategies
Noise can be reduced in a work area through a variety of strategies. Among them are:
- Separating noisy machinery or operations from the rest of the facility
- Keeping equipment well-maintained and lubricated so it doesn’t rattle or squeak
- Replacing worn or loose machine parts
- Using substances like wood or plastic instead of metal, when possible
- Using sound-absorbing acoustical tiles on the floor, ceiling, or walls
- Taking noise levels into consideration when buying new equipment
- Trying to perform noisy maintenance tasks after hours
When noise can’t be reduced to safe levels, the standard requires employees to wear appropriate hearing protection. There are three categories of protectors:
- Earmuffs usually provide the greatest amount of protection to the ears. They consist of a headband, ear cups, and ear cushions.
- Earplugs seal the ear canal and keep noise from getting through to the ear’s delicate parts. There are many different ones on the market. Some come in standard sizes, while others are custom-fitted to the ear.
- Canal caps are soft pads on the ends of a headband, similar to headphones. The caps, which must fit snugly, seal the entrance to the ear canal rather than entering it, as earplugs do.
In some particularly noisy environments, employees may need to wear more than one kind of protector (for example, plugs and muffs).
Tomorrow, we’ll look at hearing conservation from the training angle, and what the standard says your employees need to know about noise and protecting their hearing.
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