Ten Ways to Reduce Noise Exposure for Your Workers

Hazardous noise levels in the workplace are a serious issue, and, if not protected against, could lead to stress, lower productivity, and, most importantly, health problems in those affected.

There are, however, a range of measures that can be taken to reduce the effects of loud machinery and processes. From machinery additions to employee procedures, we'll discuss here the important aspects of noise reduction and ways to make your workplace safer and more comfortable.

There are main categories of measures that can be taken, such as those related to engineering (such as installing absorptive silencers) and administrative controls (such as your employee policy). There are 10 specific steps to address that span these categories.

1. Hearing Protection for Employees
This is perhaps the most obvious option for many employers. Ear protection can be very effective and, for workers operating in places where noise exceeds 85 dB, this is often necessary. There are different kinds of protection available, including ear plugs, over-the-ear plugs (which sit on the ear and are kept in place with a connected piece of plastic or wire), and ear muffs. The effectiveness of a given type of hearing protector can be measured as a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) score.

Aside from this, there is also a choice to be made between passive and active sound-blocking mechanisms (where active noise reduction involves masking hazardous sounds with a different sound—particularly useful to protect against low-frequency droning noise like that of an airfield).

2. Positioning of Noise Sources and Workplace Layout
A straightforward solution that may be an option for your company is rearranging your setup so noisy machines are further away from where employees are normally located. This can be deceptively easy because many plants, for example, can allow enough space to move some workstations to quieter areas.

When this step is implemented, along with enclosing loud machines (mentioned below), the effects can be particularly effective, as the noise source is removed from the worker by both a barrier and by distance.

3. Building Design
The use of sound insulation in the walls and ceilings can make a large contribution to how sound travels through the building. Advances in these materials are enabling impressive new functionality—there is even a trend toward environmentally friendly bio-based materials for this purpose. But if you choose standard or new materials, insulating walls and floors can go a long way toward compartmentalizing any noise sources in your building.

4. Staffing Practices
Another common-sense approach is to simply reduce the amount of time workers spend in contact with the sound source. This can easily be achieved by rotating workers in and out of contact with the noise—which is particularly effective as it gives the workers' hearing a break from the source of loudness. Noise damage to hearing is cumulative, so it will build up over time, regardless of breaks given. So another solution is to have as few staff members as possible on duty when loud noises are present in the workplace.

Scheduling some very loud processes for when there are fewer workers on duty is another option.

5. Enclosing Machines or Other Sources of Noise
One of the most effective ways to reduce noise is by installing a barrier or enclosure between a loud machine and where workers are situated. This can be achieved easily especially in plants that allow sufficient space between machines and in operating setups that do not require workers to constantly attend to the machine.

6. Keeping Machinery Up to Date
It goes without saying that wear and tear on machinery will result in greater noise leakage over time. Consider the sound quality benefits of newer machines and the potential cost savings in productivity and claims, and incorporate this calculation when carrying out cost-benefit analyses for a decision on upgrading your equipment.

7. Installing Sound Insulating Equipment on Machinery and Fixtures
Silencers are a useful method, in this regard, reducing the low-frequency sounds generated by airflow in machines and ventilation. Other measures, such as replacing rivets with welds, also reduce noise significantly.

There are two broad categories—absorptive and engine exhaust silencers—which differ in their applications and benefits.

8. Buying Machinery Based on Noise Scoring
Of course, it's best to address noise levels before they become an issue. Inquire with the manufacturer about noise levels when procuring equipment, and you could save yourself a lot of money and hassle down the line.

"Buy quiet" is a government initiative to encourage businesses to purchase equipment with lower noise levels. Organizations such as NASA have implemented "buy quiet" safety roadmaps.

9. Monitoring Your Employees' Well-Being
This is less of a prevention measure as it is a remedy. Providing for a hearing check before and during your employees' time with your company can help identify any loss of hearing before it escalates too far. While you may make every effort to protect your employees, it is always best to take a proactive approach, given the fact that every person's hearing reacts differently to sound hazards.

10. Other Outside-the-Box Measures
You should provide training for your workers on the ways to prevent hearing damage. In the end, each staff member is the best person to monitor and judge their levels of noise exposure. Other employers have found great benefit in providing completely noise-free spaces on site where workers can reduce stress.

Final Thoughts
The challenge of reducing workplace noise levels is clear. Research has shown that for every 1,000 noise-exposed workers, 2.53 healthy years are lost annually in the United States alone. Mining is the industry with the most hearing loss, but manufacturing is a close second. That doesn't mean that employers in other industries are in the clear, though, because even in office spaces, noise levels can exceed that which would allow staff to work in a focused and stress-free manner.

When deciding on your noise reduction strategy, make sure that it incorporates the perspective of administration (people), facilities (buildings), and machinery and equipment. Even simple steps can reduce the levels of noise in your workplace, but in most cases some extra measures will be needed, such as purchasing of special equipment to ensure safety.

Bear in mind that the administrative aspect cannot be ignored—both in terms of prevention and dealing with any ill effects of noise. In the interest of your workers, you should have the plans in place to monitor and act in the event of hearing damage. If the right steps are taken, you can ensure your workplace is a safe place for all.

David Holland, vice president at Mahan’s Thermal Products (Covington, Ga., http://mahans.com/), has a degree in mechanical engineering that has helped him acquire an extensive background in general contracting and mechanical contracting. He also has extensive experience in the design and construction of mechanical systems and controls. He enjoys helping consulting customers and really getting to know them and their needs so he can help serve them better. He is factory certified as an authorized service provider for Alfa Laval, including designing, repairing, and re-rating plate and frame Heat Exchangers.

Posted on Mar 31, 2017

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