The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that around 22 million Americans a year are exposed to hazardous noise levels in their respective workplaces.1 Noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) can result from brief exposure to extremely intense sound levels, or repeated exposure to loud sounds over time.
Hearing loss in the workplace, known as occupational hearing loss, is a very real threat to workers’ hearing health. Among those most at risk for occupational hearing loss are individuals working in the mining, construction, airline ground maintenance, military, and manufacturing sectors.
Any type of hearing loss that occurs as a result of your workplace experience can be categorized as occupational hearing loss. So, when does loud become too loud, and what can be done to combat hearing loss in the workplace?
Workplace noise level safety
In the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to implement a hearing conservation program if their workers are exposed to noise levels that average 85 decibels (dB) over the course of 8 hours.2 To put that noise level in context, a whisper measures at around 30 dB while a live music event usually ranges between 100 and 115 dB. While 85 dBs may not seem like a dangerous level of noise at first, it’s important to factor in the amount of time that you’re exposed to that level of noise. The longer the amount of time you are exposed to loud noises, the higher the threat to your hearing health.
Workplace hearing loss prevention
Hearing conservation programs in the workplace are designed to eliminate, as much as possible, the threat of hearing loss in the workplace -both as a result of noise levels and exposure to ototoxic chemicals. These programs rely on the hierarchy of controls developed by NIOSH. The hierarchy of controls is a systematic approach to limiting workplace hazards that gives priority to the most effective measures, including:
- Elimination is the complete removal of the hazard from the workplace and the most effective means of protection. Elimination of threats is the easiest to achieve in the earliest phases of project development.
- When elimination of a threat is not fully possible, the preferred methodology is to substitute the hazard for a less dangerous alternative.
- Hearing protection equipment
- Personal protective equipment, often referred to as PPE, is equipment given to individual workers to limit their exposure to a hazard. In relation to occupational hearing loss, PPE is a type of hearing protection device like earplugs.
- Engineering controls
- Engineering controls involve isolating people from the hazard as much as possible through physical changes to the work environment.
- Administrative controls
- Similar to engineering controls, administrative controls seek to isolate workers from the hazard. Administrative controls rely on changes to the way people work and are trained.
Especially in the case of noise-induced hearing loss, occupational hearing loss can occur slowly over time. It’s very possible that workers who are exposed to excessive noise or ototoxic chemicals may not even realize that their hearing is being damaged because it can occur so slowly. If you think you may have occupational hearing loss, request an appointment today for a hearing test.