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August 23, 2004
Noise Protection--Are Employees Hearing You?
August is National Hearing Aid Awareness Month--a good time to discuss effective ways to train employees on proper hearing protection on the job.

Find ways to make your employees take hearing loss seriously. Many employees exposed to loud noise don't really believe the issue applies to them. That's because hearing loss due to noise is a problem that can start early in life, worsen gradually, and become noticeable only later, when it's too late. Try these statistics to get their attention:

  • Noise exposure accounts for 20 percent of all hearing loss.
  • One out of three persons exposed to loud noise will develop hearing loss.
  • Most workers who are exposed to noise and don't use hearing protection will develop tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ears--how would you like to live your life with that?
The top four reasons employees don't wear ear protection. The first is cost--hopefully, that's not an issue if your company provides ear protection. Second is comfort--admittedly a problem, but one that can be addressed by, for example, substituting custom-molded earplugs for the standard foam version. The third is convenience--employees simply don't make wearing earplugs a routine habit, like wearing shoes. The fourth, perhaps surprisingly, is safety--employees are concerned that they might not hear warnings and alarms if their ears are covered or plugged. If this last point concerns your employees, make sure you address it in your training. Point out that ear protection doesn't eliminate sounds; it merely reduces them to a safe level. If appropriate, review hand signals that should be used when noise levels are high, and remind employees to use both their eyes and their ears to stay alert for danger.

Why It Matters...
  • Noise-induced hearing loss is the most common occupational illness.
  • In Fiscal 2003, OSHA gave out 848 citations for violations of its Noise Standard in manufacturing industries, with penalties totaling more than $700,000.
  • Violation of the Noise Standard was one of the top 20 most-frequentlycited violations in the manufacturing sector.

How much is too much (and what's a decibel, anyway)? OSHA's noise standard (29 CFR 1910.095) requires hearing protection when employees are exposed to 85 decibels (dB) or higher averaged over 8 hours. A "decibel" is simply a unit of sound measurement, and 85 of them are roughly equal to running a lawn mower or hair dryer. Ask your employees to imagine standing next to a running lawn mower or hair dryer all day, and they'll probably agree that protecting their ears against that kind of noise is a good thing. By reviewing the types of work and areas of the workplace that generate this noise level or greater, employees should understand that getting into the habit of wearing ear protection is a lot more important than they thought.

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