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May 07, 2007
What Are Your Workers Hearing About Noise Hazards?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), almost 42 million Americans suffer from a communication disorder--a problem with their speech, voice, language, or hearing. For your employees, the main issue is probably protecting their hearing, especially if they're exposed to high levels of noise on the job. Since May is Better Hearing and Speech Month, why not take advantage of this opportunity to talk to employees about noise hazards and hearing protection?

What's too much noise? OSHA considers workplace noise to be "excessive" if employees are exposed to noise levels of 85 decibels or higher during an 8-hour work period. When workers are exposed to these high levels of noise, OSHA requires you to:

  • Train employees in hearing conservation, including the effects of noise on hearing, the purpose of hearing protection, and the advantages and disadvantages of different types of protection, as well as how to select, fit, use, and care for their hearing protection.
  • Explain the purpose of hearing tests, test procedures, and testing schedules.
  • Provide refresher training at least once a year.
  • Update training to reflect changes in workplace noise levels or hearing protection.

What do your workers want to hear about workplace noise? Here are some key FAQs from NIOSH about hearing protection.

Why It Matters...
  • Noise above 90 decibels can damage some of the structures in the ear, resulting in hearing loss.
  • Approximately 30 million American workers are exposed to high noise levels on the job.
  • There is no cure for hearing loss--once a worker suffers a hearing loss, it's irreversible (although a hearing aid might provide some relief).

This information can help you answer employees' questions about noise and hearing conservation:

  • How long can an employee be in a loud environment before it becomes hazardous? The degree of hearing hazard is related to both the level of the noise and the duration of the exposure. But this question is like asking how long can people look at the sun without damaging their eyes. The safest thing to do is to always protect your ears by wearing hearing protectors anytime you are around loud noise.
  • How can a worker tell if a noise situation is too loud? There are two rules: First, if you have to raise your voice to talk to someone who is an arm's length away, the noise is likely to be hazardous. Second, if your ears are ringing or sounds seem dull or flat after leaving a noisy place, you probably were exposed to hazardous noise.
  • Couldn't hearing protection block out warning sounds, such as backup beeps? Using hearing protectors will bring both the noise and the warning sound down equally. So if the warning sound is audible without the hearing protector, it will usually be audible when wearing the hearing protector. For the unusual situations where this is not the case, the solution may be as simple as using a different hearing protector.
  • If an employee already has hearing loss is there any point to wearing hearing protection? If you have hearing loss, it's important to protect the hearing that you have left. Loud noises can continue to damage your hearing making it even more difficult to communicate at work and with your family and friends.
  • How often should hearing be tested? Anyone regularly exposed to hazardous noise should have an annual hearing test. Also, if you notice a change in hearing or develop ringing in the ears, you should have your hearing checked. People who have healthy ears and who are not exposed to hazardous noise should get a hearing test every 3 years.

What are the signs of hearing loss? Provide employees with this checklist from NIH so that they can use it to evaluate their own hearing health:

  • Do you have a problem hearing on the telephone?
  • Do you have trouble following a conversation when two or more people are talking at the same time?
  • Do people complain that you turn the TV, radio, or stereo volume up too high?
  • Do you have to strain to understand conversation?
  • Do you have trouble hearing when there's a lot of noise in the background?
  • Do you find yourself asking others to repeat themselves?
  • Do many people seem to mumble or not speak clearly?
  • Do you misunderstand what others are saying and respond inappropriately?
  • Do you have trouble understanding the speech of women and children?
  • Do people get annoyed because you misunderstand what they say?

NIH says that employees who answer "yes" to three or more of these questions should talk to their doctor about getting a hearing evaluation.

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