Hearing damage is one of the most common injury types that happen in the workplace. Millions of people get hearing loss to some degree, such as ringing in the ears, because they are exposed to extremely loud noises at work.
Hearing damage like this can happen across the span of months or years, so most people don’t even know it’s happening. To combat the problem, OSHA requires employers to follow rules that pertain to hearing protection. Even companies that aren’t backed by OSHA can have these same requirements for employees to ensure that they protect their ears.
Two Types of Hearing Risks
Most people aren’t aware that two hearing risks are associated with loud noises. The first is a sudden spike of loud noise, such as an explosion or gunshot. The other is prolonged noises that are louder than average.
Both types are extremely dangerous, but prolonged exposure to loud noises can be more dangerous, even if they’re at lower levels than the sudden noise burst. Facilities must identify all noise sources and determine if the noise levels are dangerous. If so, safety standards need to be implemented to protect employees.
Sudden Noise Bursts
Sudden noise bursts can cause hearing damage immediately, and it is tough to prepare for this type of noise unless you know it is going to happen. For example, if you plan to go to the shooting range to target practice, you know you’re going to hear gunfire and can prepare by wearing appropriate PPE for the ears.
In the workplace, a sudden loud noise can happen from machine presses; they slam themselves down to shape objects. These machines can make noises well in excess of 120 dB. The louder the noise, the more damage that it can cause.
Companies with these types of machines that can cause loud noises need to have warning signs to let people know to wear hearing protection when in the vicinity, even if they’re just passing through.
Prolonged noises are usually at lower decibels, but they’re still dangerous. Most manufacturing companies have noises all the time, which means employees can’t get relief from the sounds, even in the breakroom. Even after a couple of minutes of exposure, it can be significantly dangerous, though the person is likely to get used to the noise and won’t notice it.
Just because you don’t notice it doesn’t mean it’s not damaging your hearing. People in this situation should wear hearing protection; without it, they are likely to experience tinnitus or permanent hearing loss with time.
Is It too Loud?
Loud noise damage is determined by how loud it is and how long it lasts. OSHA worked hard to determine how long people can be exposed to certain levels of sound without wearing hearing protection and still be safe. However, keep in mind that the limits are stated by OSHA and most facilities want to give hearing protection options to employees before the levels stated by OSHA.
OSHA claims that people can be around consistent noise levels below 90 dB for eight hours before having to wear hearing protection. Employees can be exposed to noise levels below 92 dB for six hours while they can be around 95 dB for up to four hours. As such, noise levels of 115 dB can be heard without hearing protection for just 15 minutes without protection.
If the noise levels will exceed 115dB at any time, employees must have ear protection regardless of the duration. It is essential that the company provide earplugs and other hearing protection options at the entrance to the area with loud noises so that everyone can get the protective gear before entering and risking injury or hearing loss.
Hearing Protection Options
OSHA has the set requirements for how long and how much noise employees can be exposed to, but it is important to have the right hearing protection for your employees, as well. OSHA doesn’t state how to protect your employee from loud noises. It is best to determine the situation and have a variety of hearing PPE available based on the noises you are likely to incur.
The best thing you can do is to reduce the noise levels in your facility. You may think that is impossible, but there are ways to do so.
For example, you can install noise-absorbing panels in the facility to reduce overall noise levels. The panels can eliminate echoes, which can be a significant source of noise. Along with such, you can put a muffler on almost any vehicle or machine. If it uses gasoline, it’s likely to be loud. Installing a muffler reduces the overall noise levels in the facility.
Many times, newer machines are designed to be quieter to help reduce noise levels. You may want to consider replacing old machines with newer ones or modernize them to reduce noise.
If you have excessively loud equipment, you may want to put it in a soundproof room to reduce noises throughout the rest of the facility. The machine can usually be operated outside the room, which means an employee isn’t going to have to wear PPE for the ears to operate it.
If you can’t perform any of the noise-reduction methods listed earlier or it doesn’t lower noise levels sufficiently, earplugs are one of the most common hearing protection options. They’re highly effective if they are used correctly.
They are very inexpensive to purchase, which means you can buy them in bulk and keep them on hand. However, they are also disposable for the most part. Therefore, you can only wear them once and must throw them away. Some people can wear them for the duration of the day, but they shouldn’t be worn more than that.
You can also find custom earplugs; they are designed to fit your ear specifically and are not thrown away when used. You wash them after each use and continue reusing them. Many times, employers won’t offer these earplugs, though you can choose to have them made for your ears and use them at the facility.
Earmuffs go around the head or fit over the head and cover your entire ear instead of going into the ear canal. It is essential that the earmuffs fit correctly so that it provides the most protection because they stop any sound from getting into the ear. You can find many earmuff levels, and each is designed to stop a particular amount of noise. Therefore, you must choose the right style for that particular situation.
Of course, you shouldn’t confuse work earmuffs with those that keep the ears toasty during winter. They aren’t the same, and cold-weather earmuffs aren’t going to stop noise from getting into the ears.
You can also find advanced earmuffs that have a built-in microphone on the outside with speakers on the inside. That way, you can still hear the noises around you, but they are replayed at a safer volume. You eliminate most of the noise, but you can still talk to your coworkers in a loud environment without having to shout, turn off machinery, or risk losing your hearing.
If you work in a loud environment all or most of the day, earmuffs and the advanced versions can be most suitable and more comfortable.