Introduction to OSHA Noise Regulations

Key Points

  • OSHA’s Hearing Conservation Program was developed with a focus on preventing hearing loss from occurring.
  • A variety of tools can be used to prevent hearing loss and meet OSHA compliance. It’s important to select the best solution based on the problem.
  • Although the costs of compliance can be high, both employees and the company benefit from hearing conservation programs.

Implementing an Effective Hearing Conservation Program at Your Facility

Struggling with managing noise in the workplace? It can be a bit daunting in the beginning but don’t worry. This article contains helpful information to make starting easy. Getting into compliance takes work, but the benefits of protecting employee hearing are priceless.

Introduction to OSHA’s Hearing Conservation Program

OSHA created the Hearing Conservation Program to protect workers from significant noise exposures. The focus of hearing conservation is to prevent hearing loss from occurring in the first place.

The official regulations for the general industry can be found in OSHA 1910.95.

Focus on Hearing Loss Prevention

Although age-related hearing loss is difficult to prevent, we know for a fact that noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable. Safeguarding employee hearing requires a reliable, consistent program that identifies high noise levels, takes measures to reduce risk, educates employees, and tests hearing regularly.

When all of the elements of a hearing conservation program are in place, employees can protect their hearing. Employers have happier employees, increased productivity, and fewer hearing loss claims.

What is required for employers?

The first question any employer needs to ask themselves when it comes to hearing conservation is, “Does my workplace have a noise problem?” To answer this question, we first need to touch base on what OSHA considers high noise levels.

How loud is too loud?

Noise limits are measured as an average of what employees would be exposed to throughout their entire shift. According to OSHA, noise levels at 85 decibels for an 8-hour shift requires employers to act to protect hearing. That’s why this is called the action level. If noise reaches an average of 90 decibels for an 8-hour shift, it has met the permissible exposure limit, meaning this is the level that may result in hearing damage, and employers must ensure that programs are in place to protect employees.

One point I’d like to emphasize here is that these levels are averages. If employees are exposed to high noise levels for a short time, the average noise exposure over a shift must not be exceeded. The table below from OSHA helps to outline how long employees may be exposed to certain noise levels.

But how do you get an accurate reading of the workplace noise levels? There are a few ways of doing this that are simple and cost-effective.

Noise Monitoring

I find the easiest way to get a basic introduction to facility noise levels is to rent a sound level meter. The sound level meter can measure overall noise and typically 8-16 individual frequencies as well.

Print a map of the facility and conduct a walk-through during normal operations. Focus on the locations where employees spend the most time, such as workstations and operator routes. Note the noise levels in each area, paying particular attention to those that are higher than 80 decibels and above. The results will provide you with a preliminary look into your overall noise levels.

The next step is to use noise dosimeters to monitor individual employees who are more likely to be exposed to elevated noise levels. These items are called dosimeters because they measure the dose of noise an employee may be exposed to throughout the shift. This is the easiest and most accurate way to understand what an overall noise level will be for individuals.

Instruct at-risk employees to wear noise dosimeters throughout their usual tasks. Take notes of the day’s work, any unusual conditions, and overall noise sources that are present. If results are over 85 decibels for an 8-hour time-weighted average, your company will need to institute measures to protect employee hearing.

Quieting the Industrial World

If noise measurements reveal there is an issue at your workplace, there are several methods you can use to protect employees from high noise levels. These are listed from the most to least effective.

  1. Elimination – Is it possible to eliminate the noisy machinery or equipment? If not, is it possible to re-arrange the workplace, so employees do not have to work in the vicinity of loud machinery?
  2. Substitution – Is it possible to substitute loud equipment for quieter models? If it is not possible to substitute the entire machine, can you replace the loudest component for those that are quieter?
  3. Engineering controls – Can you enclose the machinery to prevent the sound from escaping? Can you use operator’s booths that separate employees from noisy areas?
  4. Administrative controls – Is it possible to change the way employees work to limit their time around noisy equipment?
  5. Personal protective equipment – Can you provide protective equipment like earplugs and earmuffs that will help guard employee’s ears from noisy areas?

Work to reduce noise exposures and institute the additional OSHA-required programs as listed below.

Audiometric Testing

Audiometric testing is used to monitor an employee’s hearing over time. Employers who have noise levels at or above 85 dBA for an 8-hour work shift need to establish an audiometric testing program. What these programs include are baseline audiograms for employees as well as continuing annual audiograms, training, and follow-up to issues. The audiograms must be available at no cost to employees.

Although establishing an audiometric testing program can be costly, the benefits of a testing program shouldn’t be dismissed. These tests provide results proving if the hearing conservation program is adequately protecting employee hearing. Testing is also an opportunity to educate workers on the importance of using hearing protection correctly.

Employee Training

As with almost any effective safety program, a hearing conservation program is only as effective as the training. So much of this program’s effectiveness depends on employees respecting the company policies and wearing hearing protection properly. An employee who understands that how hearing can be damaged is more likely to take steps to protect their hearing both in their work and personal lives.

Training for hearing conservation must occur annually if your site exposes employees to noise levels of 85 dBA or higher. Employees are required to be instructed on the effects of noise, the purpose, advantages, and disadvantages of various types of hearing protectors, the correct selection, fit, and care for hearing protectors. Lastly, the purpose and procedures for audiometric testing must also be covered.

Maintaining the Program

All of this work to establish an on-going schedule for noise monitoring, audiometric testing, and training is only effective if it is consistent. During the times of the year when hearing conservation training is not occurring, supervisors need to hold employees accountable for wearing their hearing protection. Issues such as employees disregarding their hearing protection for “Just a minute” or “Just this once” must be discouraged.

Always promote hearing protection as a value.

Costs of Non-Compliance

The Hearing Journal estimates that 242 million dollars are spent annually in the U.S. for workers’ compensation for hearing loss disability.

Although a quality hearing conservation program takes time, effort, and consistency, the costs of not appropriately protecting employees can be much higher. The average hearing loss payout averaged $6,688 from 2000 to 2012. The Hearing Journal estimates that 242 million dollars are spent annually in the U.S. for workers’ compensation for hearing loss disability. If that’s not enough to sway businesses, penalties for violations of the occupational noise exposure standard totaled $1.5+ in 2014. Today, OSHA’s maximum penalty for citations has increased, non-serious violations can now cost employers up to $13,620 each.

Benefits of Protecting Hearing

The generations of American employees who worked in noisy industries before OSHA was instituted didn’t get the opportunity to protect their hearing. Many of these individuals suffered the frustration of not being able to enjoy conversations in their later years and constantly struggling to hear the world around them. Today, we have an opportunity to ensure that we do not place the same burden on modern-day employees.

Protecting employee hearing is a value to employees, customers, the company, and the community. A well-implemented hearing conservation program is the first step in providing that protection.

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