Occupational hearing loss is the most common work-related injury in the United States. Approximately 22 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work, and an additional 9 million are exposed to chemicals causing hearing damage. An estimated $242 million is spent annually on worker’s compensation for hearing loss disability.

How Excessive Workplace Noise Exposure Can Effect Your Hearing

Workers exposed over repeated and prolonged periods of time to excessive noise levels experience hearing symptoms ranging from tinnitus to difficulty in detecting and recognizing sounds in the setting of background noise. This problem may impair their ability to detect warning signals, to discriminate between different frequencies, to comprehend speech, and to localize sound sources.

Typical workplaces with high noise levels include:

  • Factories –Noise induced hearing loss from loud machinery
  • Construction or building sites – Tinnitus from poor ear protection
  • Ship yards – Hearing loss from loud machinery
  • Coal mines – Miner’s tinnitus & hearing loss
  • Forging, pressing or stamping –Tinnitus from loud pressing noises
  • Canning or bottling – Loud production lines
  • Garages or workshops –Working with running engines
  • Paper, printing or board making –Repetitive loud factory noises
  • The Army – Hearing loss from ordnance
  • Call centers – Acoustic shock from sudden loud noises

How to Tell If You Have Work Related Hearing Damage

Noise may be a problem in your workplace if:

  • You hear ringing or humming in your ears when you leave work
  • You have to shout to be heard by a coworker an arm’s length away
  • You experience temporary hearing loss when leaving work

OSHA and NIOSH Set Legal Limits on Workplace Noise Exposure

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) both set legal limits on noise exposure in the workplace, that are based on a worker’s time weighted average over an 8 hour day. OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 90dBA for all workers for an 8 hour day, while NIOSH’s PEL is 85dBA. Both agree that when the noise level is increased, the amount of time a person can be exposed to the noise level must be decreased.

What Are OSHA Industry Requirements

In 1981, OSHA implemented new industry requirements to protect all workers in the manufacturing and the service sectors. Where workers are exposed to a time weighted average noise level of 85dBA or higher over an 8 hour work shift, employers are required to implement a Hearing Conservation Program.

Employers must:

  • Measure noise levels
  • Provide free annual hearing exams and free hearing protection
  • Provide training
  • Conduct evaluations of the adequacy of the hearing protectors in use unless changes to tools, equipment and schedules are made so that they are less noisy and worker exposure to noise is less than the 85dBA

Noise controls are the first line of defense against excessive noise exposure. The use of these controls should aim to reduce the hazardous exposure to the point where the risk to hearing is eliminated or minimized.

Engineering Controls

Engineering controls include modifying or replacing equipment, or making related physical changes at the noise source or along the transmission path to reduce the noise level at the worker’s ear.

Examples of inexpensive, effective engineering controls include:

  • Choosing low-noise tools and machinery
  • Maintaining and lubricating machinery and equipment
  • Placing a barrier between the noise source and employee
  • Enclosing or isolating the noise source

Administrative Controls

Administrative controls are changes in the workplace that reduce or eliminate worker exposure to noise.

Examples include:

  • Operating noisy machines during shifts when fewer people are exposed
  • Limiting the amount of time a person spends at a noise source
  • Providing quiet areas where workers can gain relief from hazardous noise sources

Hearing Protection Devices (HPDs)

Earmuffs and plugs are considered an acceptable but less desirable option to control exposures to noise, when engineering or administrative controls are not possible.