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March 16, 2012

Are Music Headphones a Workplace Hazard?

Ear protection safety signWe've all heard about the dangers of distracted driving. Now studies have documented the dangers of distracted walking. An article published in Injury Prevention concludes that headphones used with handheld devices may pose a safety risk to pedestrians, especially in environments with moving vehicles. 

Another study found that 1,500 pedestrians were treated in emergency rooms for cell-phone related incidents, including falling off bridges and walking in front of moving traffic (Accident Analysis and Prevention, August, 2013).

It's not hard to imagine the same is true in work environments such as construction sites, warehouses or loading docks.

Researchers from the University of Maryland identified 116 reported deaths or injuries of pedestrians wearing headphones between January 2004 and June 2011. Over half the pedestrians were hit by trains - even though horns or sirens sounded in 29 percent of these incidents. If these pedestrians didn't hear a train, how many earbud-wearing workers won't hear verbal directions - or the backup beep of a forklift?

MP3 players - and smartphones - have become standard-issue items for much of today's population, but portable music players are nothing new. Workers have long used music to combat the boredom of monotonous tasks. OSHA issued a memo regarding use of music headphones back in 1987:
"Use of Walkmen in noise environments in excess of Tables G-16 and D-1 is a violation. Use of Walkmen over required ear protection is a violation. Use of Walkmen in occupational noise less than Tables G-16 or D-1 is at managerial discretion unless its use causes a serious safety hazard to warrant issuance of a 5(a)(1)."
Loose earbud cords could also become caught in machinery or pose an electrical hazard similar to metal jewelry. The Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health Division has declared music devices a potential hazard because they "impair a worker's ability to hear surrounding sounds. This is especially true if the user is working around moving equipment or in circumstances where a worker must be able to hear warning sounds. Furthermore, because these devices compromise the user's general alertness and concentration, they may be considered a hazard at any workplace."

As with most workplace safety issues, there are many elements to consider. A clear policy governing use of music players is your best bet.


  1. As you hear songs, the concentration will be taken off from your work. You need to be really careful if dealing with machineries. So in this case you might face severe injuries even due to a small negligence.

  2. I think they definitely can be, especially when working with heavy machinery. Being able to properly hear is a key component of construction site safety.

  3. Has no one considered only using one headphone? I work in a warehouse and i stand still to do my job, no trucks or anything comes near me but i got a temporary notice on my file for wearing one headphone because and i quote "you might not hear the fire alarm". How deaf would I have to be to not hear the fire alarm when only one ear is at worst partially compromised, I could still hear the tannoy and anyone talking to me

  4. I would urge to avoid using headphones or loud music as part of the construction site safety protocol. Just like you shouldn't wear headphones while driving a car.