According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), at least 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise at work each year. In 2017, employers were required to pay $1.5 million in penalties for not protecting workers from noise. That amount, combined with an estimated $242 million in annual workers’ compensation claims for hearing loss, makes occupational noise worth discussing.
To start, you can consider these simple steps.
Determine your noise levels
Compare to OSHA action levels
Try to reduce noise levels through engineering controls
Require hearing protection
Monitor employees and equipment for changes
First, you need to determine the noise levels throughout your facility by using a sound level meter (SLM). OSHA occupational noise regulations consider two factors: the level of noise in decibels (dBA) and the length of time employees are exposed. An SLM provides real-time noise levels in a specific area during a specific time frame. This is a great snapshot of the noise level for that area. Next, take similar readings throughout the facility, around different pieces of equipment, and at different times of day. This creates a noise map of the facility and can help determine if additional noise monitoring is needed.
After a map is created, review the data. Are any areas approaching 85 dBA? Are there areas above 85 dBA? Do your employees work 10-hour shifts? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to determine employees’ eight-hour exposure by using a dosimeter. A dosimeter is a piece of equipment that is attached to a person to record and calculate the noise they are exposed to throughout the day. Consider monitoring more than one employee in an area so you can compare the data for better understanding of the noise exposures.
OSHA requires a full hearing conservation program (HCP) to be implemented when there is an eight-hour time weighted average (TWA) of noise levels over 85 dBA. If your data indicates a hearing conservation program is needed, requirements include initial and annual audiograms (hearing tests) and offering at least two different types of hearing protection, among other things. If the TWA reaches 90 dBA, in addition to the HCP, employers must attempt to reduce noise levels through engineering controls such as noise barriers and enclosures. These controls need to reduce the TWA to below 90 dBA. If unable to do so, employee hearing protection with an adequate noise reduction rating must be required to lower the noise levels below that threshold.
Don’t have an SLM on site to get started? Consider using a mobile phone application to take a quick reading. Although not the best option for a full dosimetric reading, the apps are useful for spot checks. You can also buy or rent SLMs or dosimeters to perform monitoring yourself, or you can contract with an industrial hygiene service or hospital occupational medicine department. Additionally, ask your independent insurance agent or your insurance carrier if they provide such a service.
If an employee does want to claim occupational noise induced hearing loss, remember:
Claims can only be filed after retirement
Employees can only file one claim with one employer.
Finally, even if your noise levels are below OSHA’s threshold, it is a best practice for manufacturers to provide and require basic hearing protection. Adding dispensers for compressible foam earplugs throughout your facility is a low-cost way to protect workers’ hearing. Manufacturers should also consider administering pre-employment hearing tests to establish a baseline for all employees as well as regular noise monitoring to see if levels have changed in the facility due to equipment or layouts.
Occupational noise isn’t just about earplugs. You need to understand the source, the level, and the duration of the noise to be able to adequately control it and protect employees from it.