While not something that attracts a lot of attention, hearing loss is among the top three recorded occupational illnesses in the state of Wisconsin.1 One in five workers who are frequently exposed to loud noises in manufacturing suffer from hearing loss that impacts their day-to-day activities,2 and forty-six percent of manufacturing workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels while on the job.3
While loud noises are inevitable in certain workplace environments, such as manufacturing or construction, suffering from hearing loss due to this exposure is preventable if employers and employees take some basic steps to protect hearing health:
Know the standard
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to implement a hearing conservation program when, on average, noise exposure is at or above 85 decibels over eight working hours, or an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA). The purpose of this standard is to prevent occupational hearing loss, protect hearing, and provide workers with knowledge and hearing protection devices.
Know your workplace noise levels
It does not take much noise over a prolonged period to cause hearing damage. Eighty-five decibels is the approximate point at which extended exposure can cause hearing damage. For reference, a leaf blower produces a noise level around 90 decibels.4 Noise levels associated with a chain saw or angle grinding are around 110 decibels, which means two minutes of exposure can cause damage. According to OSHA, if you need to raise your voice to speak to someone three feet away in your workplace, noise levels might be over 85 decibels.
Know the consequences of exposure to dangerous noise levels
One of the most common side effects of exposure to loud noises is a condition called tinnitus. People with tinnitus typically experience ringing or other noises in one or both ears that may be constant or intermittent. Chronic tinnitus is an important warning sign for damage to the inner ear. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), prolonged exposure to hazardous noise levels impacts more than just the ears. In their studies, NIOSH found a link in employees between loud noise levels on the job and high cholesterol/high blood pressure. Loud noise can also create stress, reduce productivity, and interfere with communication and concentration, leading to workplace accidents and injuries.
Know how to prevent or mitigate high noise levels
While new technologies allow for engineering controls to reduce or eliminate noise levels with equipment, some simple changes in the schedule or the workspace can also help. For example, installing a barrier like a wall or curtain between the noise source and employee can be effective in reducing noise levels. Employers can control noise exposure through distancing and by limiting the amount of time at the noise source. Noise levels may also be reduced through maintenance on the machines to reduce vibration, friction, or mechanical shock caused by worn parts.
Know how to carry out a hearing conservation program
In many environments, elimination of hazardous noise is nearly impossible. In environments where employees are exposed to noise levels at or above 85 decibels averaged over 8 working hours, employers must monitor exposure by assessing noise levels and employees’ hearing. To prevent hearing loss, employers must fit employees with adequate hearing protectors, demonstrate how to properly use them, and explain why the protection is important. Employers must provide employees with a selection of at least one variety of hearing plug and one variety of hearing muff. Whenever there is a change in the noise levels in the workplace, employers must reevaluate the suitability of the hearing protectors and must give employees more effective protectors if needed. Employers must keep noise exposure measurement records for two years and maintain records of audiometric test results for the duration of an affected employee’s employment as well as records of work-related hearing loss cases when an employee’s hearing test shows a marked decrease in overall hearing. More information on the OSHA Hearing Conservation program can be found at https://www.osha.gov/noise.
To promote occupational health and wellness, Acuity is a sponsor for HEAR Wisconsin’s Mobile Audiology Clinic. To learn more about the Mobile Audiology Clinic, OSHA hearing conservation testing, and other services it can provide your business and community, visit the HEAR Wisconsin website.
Written by HEAR Wisconsin, a nonprofit that has been providing hearing health services since 1926 and is now providing hearing conservation testing for companies on a contracted basis. If your company is interested in a quote on hearing conservation services or other wrap-around services for those who require more extensive hearing healthcare, contact HEAR Wisconsin or your hearing healthcare provider.
1U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020)
2American Journal of Industrial Medicine (2015)
3American Journal of Industrial Medicine (2018)
4Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (2022)