One of the most prevalent work-related hazards in all industries is occupational noise. However, this is an often-unanticipated workplace hazard. Unwanted exposure to elevated noise levels can lead to hearing loss and other undesirable health effects. The intensity of the noise and the duration of the exposure determine the extent of the damage.
To reduce the risk of hearing loss to employees working in noisy areas, conduct a workplace screening with calibrated sound level meters to determine if elevated noise levels are present. If this screening determines elevated noise levels are greater than 85 decibels (dBA) averaged over 8 working hours or an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA), OSHA requires employers to conduct full work shift sampling to quantify employee exposure to these potentially elevated noise hazards. The sampling must occur during a typical work shift and include assessment of continuous, intermittent, and impulse noise within the 80 dB to 130 dB range.
Exposure to high levels of noise can cause permanent hearing loss. Neither surgery nor a hearing aid can help correct this type of hearing loss. Short-term exposure to loud noise can also cause a temporary change in hearing (your ears may feel stuffed up) or a ringing in your ears (tinnitus). These short-term problems may go away within a few minutes or hours after leaving the noise. However, repeated exposures to loud noise can lead to permanent tinnitus and/or hearing loss.
Additional Health Issues
Loud noise can also create physical and psychological stress, reduce productivity, interfere with communication and concentration, and contribute to workplace accidents and injuries by making it difficult to hear warning signals. The effects of noise-induced hearing loss can be profound, limiting your ability to hear high frequency sounds, understand speech, and seriously impairing your ability to communicate.
When information indicates that any employee's exposure may equal or exceed an 8-hour time-weighted average of 85 decibels, the employer shall develop and implement a monitoring program. A hearing conservation program is designed to protect employees from hearing impairment. In order to comply with OSHA regulations, elements to include in a hearing conservation program include establishing a written program, monitoring, audiometric testing (annual audiograms), providing hearing protection to employees, and training.
Representative employee exposure samples must be collected and compared to Occupational exposure limits (OELs) in reference to regulations set forth by the OSHA. These samples will determine if any of these exposures are in excess of occupational exposure limits. If OELs are exceeded, then employers are required to implement means of protecting employees from unwanted exposure as appropriate. Employees must be notified of the results of the noise exposure sampling. In addition to initial sampling, if there is a change in production or equipment is added, employers must repeat monitoring to determine if these changes increase employee exposures.
An employee’s hearing over time is monitored by audiometric testing. This also provides a chance for employees to be educated by employers of the risk of exposure to occupational noise. An audiometric program must be established and maintained for all employees whose exposures equal or exceed an 8-hour time-weighted average of 85 decibels TWA. Elements of the program include baseline audiograms, annual audiograms, training, and follow up procedures.
Audiometric testing must be provided at no cost to employees. The test must be performed by a physician or licensed health care provider certified by the Council of Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation, or who has satisfactorily demonstrated competence in administering audiometric examinations, obtaining valid audiograms, and properly using, maintaining and checking calibration and proper functioning of the audiometers being used. A baseline audiogram must be obtained within 6 months of an employee’s first exposure above the 85 decibels Action Level. There is an exception for employers who use a mobile test van for audiograms. Baseline audiograms must be completed within 1 year after an employee’s first exposure to workplace noise with this exemption. Regardless, employees must be issued and required to wear hearing protection whenever they are exposed to noise levels above a TWA of 85 decibels. This baseline serves as a reference against which all future audiograms are compared.
An annual audiogram shall be conducted for each employee after the baseline is obtained. This is critical to determine if the worker’s hearing shows any signs of deterioration. If the annual audiogram is compared to the baseline and a loss of 10 dB in either ear at more than 2,000, 3,000, or 4,000 hertz is observed, then the employee is considered to have a hearing loss. If the evaluating professional conducting the audiogram determines a standard threshold shift (STS) has occurred, the employer must notify the employee within 21 days. If the results of the test are questionable by the evaluating professional, then further testing may be needed. If the hearing loss is suspected to be a medical problem and not work related, the employer must advise the employee to see a physician. Note that this STS is considered a recordable occupational injury and should be documented on the OSHA Form 300 (Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses).