Beating on the Ear Drums: Safe Noise Levels as a Work Priority

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One of the most important things businesses can do for workers is to prepare them for loud environments. As outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in its recent bulletin on worker safety, providing proper hearing protection and reducing high decibel levels are crucial to preventing noise-induced hearing loss. It is important for companies to adhere to the proper protocols to avoid liability or litigation.

OSHA reports that businesses have paid out around $1.5 million in damages from violations involving insufficient noise protection. Workers’ compensation from hearing loss has reached as high as $250 million annually. They also report that more than 20 million are in occupations that put them in direct contact with high decibel environments.

How Loud is Too Loud?

Sound intensity is measured in units called decibels (dBA). The highest level that can be safe for extended exposure from unprotected human ears is 85 decibels (known as the action level or AL). Listening to noise over 85 dBA for a sustained period of time causes damage that may lead to permanent hearing loss.

Yet many workers in loud environments do not wear hearing protection. For example, Washington University reported that construction workers wear protection or less than 20% of the time. While jackhammering jumps to mind as an obvious loud construction noise, most industrial and workplace noise falls in the 80 to 90 dBA level.

Factors that contribute to the low usage rates of protective hearing gear are both lack of understanding of worker’s rights to obtain the proper gear as well as a lack of awareness of hazardous noise. That typical industrial noise level of 80 to 90 dBA is equivalent to the sound of heavy highway traffic — it’s present, but it’s not immediately painful. Thus, some workers most at risk don’t think they need proper protection. A nail gun, for example, emits noise up to 100 dBA, and it takes only around 30 minutes of exposure for decibel levels of this magnitude to begin causing permanent damage.

What Staffing Industries and Employers Can Do

Staffing industries and employers need to know the proper measures to ensure their worksite and workers are as protected from loud noise as is possible and that their workers are educated about hearing loss. Here are questions that staffing suppliers and employers can ask themselves:

Does the employer use noise absorbing materials around machines?
Are workers educated on the effects and limits of loud noise?
Are there protocols and programs that tell everyone about the risks of loud noise exposure
Is there a reporting system that ensures workers wear protection?
Does the employer provide an abundance of protective gear?
Is there a noise monitoring program that can share results?
Are workers notified in every area where hazardous noise is present?

Hearing will not return after it is damaged. Even outside of construction, gas mowers and passing subway trains emit noise over 90 dBA. Protecting the hearing of workers is not only an ethical and legal necessity, but also ensures productivity in the workplace. It is important for staffing suppliers to make sure workers are awake of the workplace noise and their rights to obtaining the protection they need.

To put the hazards of workplace noise into perspective, the following infographic compares common industrial noises to everyday sounds provides hearing limits and hearing protection tips for staffing agencies to educate employees.

 

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