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Can you hear me now? Hopefully you can, because October is National Protect Your Hearing Month.
But if you’re one of the 22 million workers exposed annually to hazardous noise levels at work, it might be a struggle. According to the Centers for Disease Control, occupational hearing loss is the most common workplace injury in the U.S.
On top of the human toll of injured workers, occupational hearing loss also costs employers millions of dollars every year. According to OSHA, U.S. businesses pay out about $1.5 million in penalties for not protecting workers from noise. Another estimated $242 million is spent annually on workers’ compensation for hearing loss injuries.
How loud is too loud?
If noise levels reach 85 decibels, it can damage your hearing after repeated exposure of longer than eight hours. What is 85 decibels? It’s loud enough that you must raise your voice to be heard by someone an arm’s length away. Many sounds reach this level, including lawn mowers, vacuums, or using earbuds with the volume level at about 70 percent.
Noise at 95 decibels (when you have to shout to be heard at arm’s length) can be a risk to your hearing in less than an hour. Bulldozers, sirens, chain saws, and large sporting events are louder than 95 decibels.
Damaged hearing can make it difficult or impossible to hear high-pitch frequencies, and also make it hard to communicate with others. Researchers are also exploring if loud noise at work can have additional health effects, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
How to Protect Workers
Most people have seen or used ear plugs and ear muffs, but those are not the only – or most effective – ways to protect the hearing of workers.
Engineering controls involve modifying or replacing equipment. Examples include:
- using low-noise tools and machinery
- maintaining and lubricating machinery and equipment
- placing a barrier like a curtain or a sound wall between the noise source and the employee
- enclosing or isolating the noise source
Administrative controls, which are changes in the workplace or schedule that reduce worker exposure to noise, can also be highly effective. These include:
- operating noisy machines when fewer workers are present
- limiting the amount of time a worker is exposed to the hazard
- providing a quiet rest area for workers to remove themselves from the noise
- move employees farther from the noise source; every doubling of distance between the worker and the noise source decreases the exposure by six decibels
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