Occupational Hearing Hazards

Did you know that hearing loss is the number one most commonly reported workplace injury in the United States?

Excess exposure to loud noises at work may be a bigger problem than you ever realized. It can cause noise induced hearing loss, which is a permanent and irreversible hearing impairment. Hearing loss not only makes it more difficult to hear. It can also cause social withdrawal, depression, cognitive decline, issues in our relationships, and an increased risk for serious falls.

We spend a great majority of our waking hours at work, so it is imperative that we do whatever we can to ensure our safety and that of our employees while on the job. Just as it is important to wear protective equipment for our heads and hands, the same precautions should be taken for our ears!

OSHA Guidelines - How Loud is Too Loud?

In 1981, the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revisited guidelines regarding occupational noise exposure. OSHA determined a certain volume that was safe for workers to be exposed to for an 8-hour workday, 5 days a week, over a 40-year career. Please keep in mind that when writing these guidelines, OSHA researchers assumed workers were engaging in quieter leisure activities during the nights and weekends (rather than regularly attending noisy places such as bars, sporting events, or motorcycling).

In determining guidelines, OSHA used decibels (dBA), which is a standard of measure for levels of noise. The organization determined that a worker could be safely exposed to decibels up to 85 over the course of an 8-hour workday. For every increase in 3 decibels, the allowed time limit is to be cut in half. The following chart helps to illustrate this:

85 dBA

8-hour limit per day

88 dBA

4-hour limit per day

91 dBA

2-hour limit per day

94 dBA

1-hour limit per day

97 dBA

30-minute limit per day

100 dBA

15-minute limit per day

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Noise Levels of Common Occupational Devices and Activities

In order to better understand OSHA’s guidelines, it is important to put these noise levels into perspective. The following chart explains how loud common workplace tools are:

It is important to keep in mind that only ONE of these activities is safe for your hearing per day. For example, it is not safe for your ears to be exposed to a handsaw for 4-hours per day, a tractor for 2-hours per day and factory machinery for 15 minutes per day. Only ONE of these activities would be considered safe for your hearing under OSHA.

A good rule of thumb is that if you have to raise your voice to be heard by someone standing only a few feet away from you, the noise is probably loud enough to cause damage to your hearing. It is important to remember that noise induced hearing loss is most often a result of a cumulative exposure to noise over a prolonged period of months, years or even decades.

How to Protect Yourself at Work

It is simple to see how easily and how often we are exposed to excess noise at work. Luckily, there are also simple and easy solutions to these issues. Under OSHA guidelines, you have the right to work in an environment free from harm. If you are an employee at a noisy workplace, reach out to your manager and ask about the policies for hearing protection. You have the right to access quality hearing protection and conservation education free-of-charge.
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