A common question that gets asked is when does hearing loss, or hearing impairment, become the result of a work-related exposure? Given that we live in a world where we are constantly subjected to loud noises.
There is no denying that the tools that we use in our lines of work create loud noise as well but that doesn’t necessarily mean that employees will lose their hearing. With the proper workplace hearing protection controls in place to eliminate, reduce, and protect against potentially damaging noise exposures.
Understanding Hearing Damage
How loud does the noise need to be to cause damage? Hearing loss can occur when exposed to 85 decibels of noise (averaged over 8 hours). To put this in perspective, normal conversations typically occur at 60 decibels which is well below the hearing loss threshold. The next question becomes where do the tools and environments of where we work fit into this picture?
- Air compressors from 3 feet away register 92 decibels, which would take less than 2 hours to cause hearing loss
- Powered drills register 98 decibels, which would cause damage after 30 minutes
- Typical factories often register at 100 decibels – that’s 15 minutes of exposure
- Powered saws can reach 110 decibels from 3 feet away, which could cause permanent hearing loss in under 2 minutes
In short, if workers are exposed to these noise levels without protection, then hearing loss is very likely. The only way to know the exact noise levels that workers are exposed to is to conduct noise monitoring using specialized equipment, though this is only required when exposures are at or above 85 decibels.
Some indications that noise levels may be this high are if employees complain about the loudness of the noise, if there are signs suggesting that employees are losing their hearing, or if the noise levels make normal conversation difficult. Also consider that these conditions may not occur across the entire work site, but rather be limited to a specific task or piece of machinery.
The Importance of Hearing Protection In The Workplace
Employers have a legal duty to address workplace noise with the Occupational Health & Safety Act. The best protection we can provide is to eliminate the hazard. This can be completed by eliminating the need to work with the tools or in the environments that create these noise exposures. Realistically, though, this isn’t always possible. We can also work to reduce the noise levels that the employees are exposed to. Some tools and machines are available that are designed to operate at lower decibels, therefore reducing the risk of hearing loss. We can also implement administrative controls, such as placing a cap on the number of hours that an employee can work in a high decibel environment, or limit the hours working with specific tools and equipment.
Our final line of protection is our PPE that meets legal hearing protection requirements. Ear plugs and ear-muffs can reduce the decibel exposures, providing protection against hearing loss. Ear plugs provide the greatest amount of protection as long as they are inserted correctly. Therefore, employees need to be trained to wear them correctly when they are used. Ear-muffs can also reduce the decibel exposures, though not to the extent that ear plugs can. They are easier to wear correctly, though, which is why some workers prefer them.
Some high decibel exposures may be unavoidable to perform the tasks necessary for our operations, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t assist you with taking the necessary steps to protect employees and their hearing while at work. What they do in their free time, like attending a rock concert (which can peak at 130 decibels), becomes their choice.
Creating & Implementing A Plan For Workplace Hearing Protection
If you need to create or update your safety management plan to include hearing protection, RMG can help. Contact us at 226.972.1539 for a consultation.