Noise: The Insidious Hazard that is Often Missed

by Sarah Knight, ASP, CHST – Safety Advisor

Most workplace hazards are obvious. A sharp edge on a tool, a flame from a torch, and an open trench are all recognizable as dangers, and instinct helps us avoid them.

But one of the most potentially damaging hazards is one that most workers don’t even notice. This insidious hazard sneaks up on them slowly, and by the time they become aware of the injuries they’ve suffered, it’s too late to reverse the damage. That hazard is workplace noise.

One thing that makes workplace noise so dangerous is that our ears adjust to the noise Have you ever climbed into your car in the morning and wondered who had turned the radio volume so high – and realized you had done it on the way home the day before? As you tried to block out the road noise or the sound of the air rushing through your window, you increased the volume to a level that seemed painful the next day. But because the volume grew gradually, you adapted to it and didn’t notice how loud it really was.

The same thing can happen when workers are around noisy machines. Over time, they acclimate to the noise, and it no longer bothers them. But even though they may adjust, their hearing still suffers damage from the exposure. It may take years or even decades before they notice the loss of hearing.

Hearing losses create work- and safety-related concerns. Workers on a jobsite must be able to hear one another to ensure proper communication. A worker with impaired hearing might miss or misunderstand an important instruction, leading to an accident or an improper action that creates the need for rework or repair. Many types of audible warning devices may be used in a workplace, from back-up signals on equipment to fire and weather alarms. If a worker cannot hear those devices, he or she won’t receive the full benefit of the protection.

Impaired hearing can also have a profound influence on an individual’s life outside work. It can impact personal relationships, erode a worker’s self-confidence, and create increased stress. These can spill over to the workplace, reducing productivity and even leading to lost time.

While steps can be taken to suppress or reduce some noise, it isn’t always that easy. In some cases, equipment can be modified or engineered to lessen the amount of noise that’s generated. When such modifications aren’t possible or feasible, it’s important to find other ways to protect workers.

For example, one client’s process requires the use of a large tunnel washer to clean equipment. When the washer is operating, it creates a great deal of noise. We monitor the noise levels and manage the amount of time workers spend in the loudest areas. One step that reduces individual exposure is to rotate the tasks that workers are doing, so they aren’t exposed to a constant barrage of noise. Although OSHA regulations do not call for hearing protection until workers experience a certain decibel level over an eight-hour period, the company wanted to preserve the workers’ hearing, so they decided to have them wear earplugs when they are working next to the tunnel wash.

In many cases, workers and their supervisors may be unaware of the potential damage that can be caused by the equipment they use. While cars and trucks are well-soundproofed, industrial vehicles offer less protection from engine and other operating noise. Even something as small as the blowers used by landscape contractors expose workers to significantly high noise levels.

When noise-producing hazards cannot be eliminated and employee exposure cannot be reduced, the best practice is to require the use of appropriate personal protective equipment such as earplugs, earmuffs, and other devices. Supervisors and safety professionals should verify that the devices are being used properly.

It’s also a good idea to remind workers about the potential hazards they may face away from the jobsite – and excess noise is one of them. Listening to loud music on earphones for a long period of time can impair their hearing, which once again can impact work performance. Making workers aware of safety in all aspects of their lives protects both their health and their job performance.

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