Although regulatory protections are in place, occupational noise remains the cause of hearing loss for too many workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is tasked with regulating and enforcing workplace safety standards, and hearing safety is no exception. Despite the efforts of this agency, some employers fail to protect their workers’ hearing on the job. Large factories, industrial facilities, and transportation hubs often emit the loudest sounds, and they tend to have strict regulations in place about the use of hearing protection and the limits on shift time in highly noisy areas. Although some of these workplaces do not thoroughly follow regulations, small businesses also pose a risk to employee hearing. Let’s take a look at the ways that hearing can be at risk in the workplace. With these risks in mind, you can be sure to take your hearing health into your own hands.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
In order to understand these risks, we first need to understand the nature of noise-induced hearing loss. This type of hearing damage occurs when a person is exposed to loud sound, but the volume of that noise is not the only factor. The duration of exposure is also an important part of the risk of hearing damage. A very loud sound, such as a gunshot, explosion, or crash can be sufficient to damage hearing in an instant. However, relatively quieter sounds can also cause hearing damage when a person experiences them for a long enough duration of time. The baseline threshold of sound for workers is 85 decibels. A sound at this volume can be endured for an 8-hour work shift without a risk of damage. However, for each additional 3 decibels of sound beyond that level, the time of maximum exposure is cut in half. A sound of 88 decibels can be endured for 4 hours, a sound of 91 decibels can be endured for 2 hours, and so on. With this principle in mind, you can see how dangerous sounds can be, even when they are not immediately recognizable as a hearing risk.
Large-scale industrial facilities and transportation hubs can produce sounds that are damaging within a matter of minutes, and employees are mandated to wear hearing protection when they are in the proximity of these machines. However, small businesses can also pose a risk to hearing. Auto mechanic shops often produce sounds that are 90 decibels and above. Even restaurants and bars can produce damaging levels of sound when a full crowd is talking and background music is playing. The length of a shift is a crucial consideration in these situations. If a server works a brief 2-hour shift with a noisy crowd in the restaurant, this level of noise exposure is quite different from a full 8-hour shift. If you are concerned about your exposure to noise in the workplace, you can take your hearing health into your own hands. It is wise to begin by consulting with your supervisor or manager to see if any measurements of noise have been taken and if any regulations are in place. After notifying your supervisor about the possibility of noise exposure, you can also take a reading for yourself. Free apps are available on your smartphone to measure the decibel level of a workplace. Be sure to take several readings in different locations where you commonly work. This measure can let you know how loud your workplace tends to be. With this measurement in hand, you can determine how long your work shift can be before you are at risk of hearing damage. If you find that your work shift exceeds the maximum time for safe exposure, be sure to begin wearing earplugs as a first line of protection. Even disposable foam earplugs can bring down the volume level in a room by 10 decibels, sometimes bringing that effective noise exposure to a safe level where you can continue to work while keeping your hearing ability out of harm’s way. While working with your employer, you can take these steps to protect your hearing in the workplace, and be sure to educate your coworkers about these workplace safety concerns, as well.