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October 19, 2017

Workplace Hearing Loss - What You Need To Know

Noise area may cause hearing loss use proper protection
Hazardous noise in the workplace affects some 22 million U.S. workers, and NIOSH reports that some 10 million workers incur permanent hearing loss annually. If workers must raise their voice to speak to someone an arm's length away, noise levels may be loud enough to damage hearing. October is Protect Your Hearing Month - a good time to review your hearing protection program and to remind workers that noise-induced hearing loss is preventable.

Work Related Hearing Loss is a Major Problem

Among workers exposed to occupational noise, 23 percent have reported difficulty hearing, 15 percent reported tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and nine percent suffered both conditions. That makes noise-related hearing loss the most common work-related injury in the U.S. Hearing loss disability costs businesses an estimated $242 million annually in workers' compensation. Workers with hearing loss often have trouble localizing sounds or hearing warning signals and have an increased risk of accidents. Tinnitus can disrupt sleep and concentration, increasing fatigue, impacting alertness, degrading performance and potentially increasing risks for accidents on and off the job.

Noise levels over 85 decibels can be hazardous to hearing. Hearing protection requirements are detailed in OSHA's Occupational Noise Exposure Standard - 29 CFR 1910.95. Section (i) of this standard states, “Employers shall make hearing protectors available to all employees exposed to an 8-hour time-weighted average of 85 decibels (dB) or greater at no cost to the employees.” Safety signs notifying workers of hearing PPE requirements are required in areas where known or potential hearing hazards exist.

Workplace Hearing Risks Vary by Industry and Other Factors

The risk for hearing loss due to noise exposure is especially high among factory and heavy industry workers, transportation workers, military personnel, construction workers, miners, farmers, firefighters, police officers, musicians and even office workers in crowded areas. But workers often disregard hearing protection - even in these high-risk occupations. A recent workplace safety study shows that young construction workers commonly disregard hearing protection that could prevent noise-induced hearing loss later in life. Among young Canadian construction workers, 24 per cent reported not wearing hearing protection, compared to 13 per cent of workers over the age of 50 and 11 per cent of workers in all other age groups. They are also less likely to wear hearing protection compared to young workers in other industries, such as manufacturing.

A recent NIOSH study found hearing difficulty, tinnitus and combined conditions most frequently affect workers in agriculture, forestry and fishing and hunting. Manufacturing workers had significantly higher risk for tinnitus and combined tinnitus and hearing difficulty.

Hearing risks are influenced by several factors:

  • Noise level – as noise level increases, the risk also increases
  • Duration of exposure – the longer the noise lasts, the more hazardous it becomes
  • Impulsiveness – noises that have very abrupt starts and stops (such as hammering, gunfire, or fireworks) are more dangerous than constant noise of the same overall level
  • Intermittence – periods of relative quiet between exposures allow the ear to “rest” and reduce the risk

How to Minimize Hearing Risks

Although hearing PPE may be the first control people think of, PPE is considered the least effective option for noise hazard control. The hierarchy of controls, from most to least effective, is:
  • Eliminating the hazard source
  • Substitute with less-noisy equipment
  • Engineering controls that isolate people from the hazard
  • Administrative controls that change the way people work
  • PPE that addresses the worker, not the source of the noise

To minimize occupational risks and reduce work-related hearing loss, employers should implement Hearing Loss Prevention programs. Critical components to any Hearing Loss Prevention Program include:
  • Noise exposure monitoring
  • Engineering and administrative controls
  • Audiometric evaluation
  • Hearing protection devices
  • Education and motivation - including safety signs for hearing PPE
  • Record keeping
  • Program evaluation

NIOSH has online resources available to help businesses select less-noisy tools, and also has developed a sound-level measurement app for iOS (Apple) devices that provides noise exposure parameters to help reduce occupational noise-induced hearing loss.

Hearing Protection Resources:

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