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August 05, 2013
Shh! OSHA warns New England factories to quiet down
By Emily Scace, Senior Editor, Safety

Approximately 22 million workers nationwide are exposed to potentially damaging noise on the job each year. In the New England area, OSHA has decided to target that hazard with the launch of its new outreach and enforcement Regional Emphasis Program on noise in manufacturing.

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The program, according to OSHA, will identify and inspect workplaces with high noise levels and provide outreach to employers. Targeted employers will include those involved in the manufacturing and fabrication of metal, plastic, stone, and wood products, as well as meat, dairy, and bakery production.

Marthe Kent, OSHA’s regional administrator for New England, emphasizes that exposure to high noise levels can cause permanent hearing loss for which correction with surgery and/or hearing aids is not possible. “To prevent that from happening to workers, we are encouraging employers to explore and pursue better safeguards for their employees against everyday workplace noise hazards,” she says.

For this emphasis program, outreach and enforcement phases will occur concurrently. This will allow OSHA to raise awareness about the hazards of occupational noise exposure among employers and employees.

Reducing noise exposure

For an 8-hour day, OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) for noise is 90 decibels (dBA). For each increase in exposure of 5 dBA, the amount of time a person can be exposed is cut in half. For example, at 95 dBA, a worker is allowed 4 hours of exposure; at 100 dBA, a worker is allowed 2 hours of exposure. However, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends an 8-hour exposure limit of 85 dBA, citing research showing that significant hearing loss can occur at levels equivalent to OSHA’s PEL.

Engineering and administrative controls are the most effective ways to reduce noise exposure. While some methods can be costly, others are easy to implement and inexpensive. Strategies include:

  • Replacing noisy equipment with low-noise tools and machinery;
  • Maintaining and lubricating equipment;
  • Placing a barrier such as a sound wall between the noise source and the worker;
  • Enclosing or isolating the noise source;
  • Increasing the distance between the noise source and the worker;
  • Operating noisy machines during shifts when fewer employees are exposed;
  • Providing quiet areas for workers to gain relief from hazardous noise; and
  • Limiting the amount of time a worker spends at a noise source.

When these methods are not possible, or not sufficient, hearing protection devices, such as earmuffs and earplugs, can be used to reduce noise exposure.

Hearing conservation programs

OSHA requires employers to implement hearing conservation programs when occupational noise exposure is greater than 85 dBA over 8 hours in general industry or greater than 90 dBA over 8 hours in the construction industry. Hearing conservation programs are intended to prevent hearing loss, protect remaining hearing, and educate workers about hazardous noise exposure and protection methods.

General industry requirements for hearing conservation programs are extensive. Some elements include:

  • Workplace noise sampling;
  • Audiometric testing programs;
  • Comprehensive hearing protection procedures for workers who demonstrate hearing loss;
  • Proper selection, use, and monitoring of hearing protection devices;
  • Worker training on hazardous noise exposure and the use of protective measures; and
  • Accurate and complete recordkeeping for noise sampling and monitoring.
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