Protecting Workers from Loud Noises: A Three-Pronged Approach

Protecting Workers from Loud Noises A Three Pronged Approach

Protecting workers from hazardous occupational noise exposure requires understanding the exposure, taking the right PPE approach, and ensuring worker buy-in.

Hearing protection devices (HPDs) don’t block out sound completely, but they give you some protection by reducing the amount of sound reaching your ear. At the same time, you will be able to hear speech and important machinery sounds. Employers must attempt to reduce workers’ noise exposure by using engineering and administrative controls. If any hazardous noise exposure remains, then workers need to use HPDs. 

Ensuring your workers are protected in their work environment from hazardous occupational noise exposures might prevent unnecessary enforcement actions. I recently had a peer, a Corporate EHS Director for a large specialty contractor, share his company’s recent experience with me about an OSHA inspection.  

Workers complained they were not comfortable at work, saying noise levels were distracting and loud. Although the company did not violate any Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and provided workers with adequate hearing protectors, it had difficulty explaining to OSHA how it performed assessments to evaluate noise exposures. 

Hearing Protection  

Under OSHA section §1910.95, Occupational Noise Exposure, employers must allow workers to select from a variety of suitable hearing protection devices. Employers must also pay for hearing protection too. The noise reduction rating (NRR) indicates how much noise reduction hearing protector provides. 

Employers must “make hearing protectors available to all employees exposed to an eight-hour time-weighted average of 85 decibels or greater at no cost to the employees.” This is the exposure level at which hearing protectors must be available. Employees must wear the hearing protectors when exposures are at or above 90 decibels as an eight-hour time-weighted average. 

Also, employees exposed at or above 85 decibels as an eight-hour time-weighted average must wear hearing protectors if they have not yet had a baseline audiogram established or have experienced a standard threshold shift in their hearing.  

Most employers must implement some elements of an IH or occupational health program depending on their work activities and workers’ exposures. Here is some guidance on how to evaluate noise exposures by performing a walk-around survey. 

OSHA requires employers to determine if workers are exposed to excessive workplace noise. If so, the employer must implement feasible engineering or administrative controls to eliminate or reduce hazardous noise levels. Employers must implement an effective hearing conservation program where controls are insufficient. 

OSHA’s occupational noise exposure standard at 1910.95 protects general industry employees, such as those in the manufacturing, utilities, and service sectors. It does not cover the construction or the oil and gas well drilling and servicing industries.  

Evaluating Noise Exposure 

The first step toward solving any noise problem is to define it. Employers must determine the level of noise their employees are exposed to in the workplace to determine which control methods are needed to protect worker safety.  

When evaluating which employees are potentially covered by OSHA’s standard, remember that the rule applies to employees with even one day of exposure to noise levels at or above 85 decibels on an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA).  

Employees not exposed to noise levels equal to or exceeding 85 decibels (as an eight-hour TWA) for an entire year following their last annual audiogram may be removed from the hearing conservation program. The next step is to perform an assessment by performing a walk-around sound survey and sampling.

Walk-around Sound Survey

There is only one way to know if noise has reached a dangerous level — by having someone trained to conduct a sound survey. Anyone trained to use a sound level meter and a dosimeter and evaluate the data should be able to perform the survey. Employers should engage a trained individual to conduct a walk-around sound survey of their workplaces. 

The walk-around survey will screen for noise exposures and determine if additional monitoring is necessary. When screening for noise exposures, sound-level meter measurements and estimates of the duration of exposure are sufficient. The resulting spot readings can be used to determine the need for a complete evaluation. 

If the results of the walk-around survey indicate time-weighted average (TWA) exposures of 80 decibels or more, additional noise monitoring should be performed. Employers should consider the accuracy of the sound level meter when making this estimation. For example, a Type 2 sound level meter has an accuracy of plus or minus 2 decibels. The results of the sound survey will help with selecting the proper hearing protectors for your workers. Next, we’ll discuss the different types of hearing protection available to workers. 

Types of Hearing Protection 

There are three main types of PPE when it comes to hearing protection: 

Earplugs. Earplugs are either disposable or reusable and provide workers with the best protection against constant noise exposure because they form a tight seal in their ear canal. To insert them correctly, tell your workers to lift their ear up and back to open their ear canal properly and ensure a snug fit. If they don’t get a snug fit, they won’t be getting optimal protection. 

To prevent earplugs from becoming loose and uncomfortable in the ear, workers should make sure their hands are clean and dry before handling and inserting them. In addition, instruct them to read all of the manufacturer’s instructions.

Headband Plugs and Canal Caps. Workers can wear headband plugs, sometimes called canal caps, to prevent exposure to temporary or intermittent noise, such as working with machinery that gets turned on and off frequently. A significant benefit of headband plugs is that workers can insert and remove them quickly. However, they don’t fit as snugly as earplugs do because they don’t form to the inside of the ear canal. They also don’t provide the same level of coverage as earmuffs.

Earmuffs. Earmuffs are good at blocking out noise because they completely cover the ears. However, earmuffs require a perfect seal to be effective. Glasses, long hair or long sideburns, and facial movements such as chewing can prevent a proper seal and reduce the level of protection. Workers can use earmuffs if they’re wearing hearing aids.

Making it Matter to Workers

In closing, remember that healthy noises and sounds surround your workers all day long and provide more meaning and satisfaction to their life. There’s no substitute for talking with and hearing family, friends, and loved ones firsthand. Ask your workers if they have children or grandchildren. Do they remember hearing their voices for the first time? How fulfilling was that? Hearing-related injuries can be disabling and affect workers’ quality of life and retirement. 

At your next safety meeting, ask your workers what they would do if their sense of hearing is gone or affected because they had a workplace injury and couldn’t hear precious voices and sounds anymore. Occupational hearing loss is preventable. Besides using workplace controls to control noises, provide your workers with proper hearing protectors, reducing their exposure to harmful noise levels.

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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