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Protecting Your Hearing at the Workplace: What Every Worker Should Know

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published a report on the importance of protecting your hearing at the workplace.

The CDC estimates that 22 million workers in the United States are subjected to noise that is loud enough to be possibly hazardous each year.  Hearing loss caused by noise is one of the most work-related injuries in this country.  Not only does this exposure cause hearing loss, it can cause cardiovascular risks, impact an employee’s quality of life and bring a high cost to society.

Is My Hearing at Risk?

Workers are at risk of hearing loss when exposed to loud noise.  Noise over 85 decibels can be hazardous and can result in hearing loss.  Smartphone apps are available that measure sound levels.  The NIOSH Science Blog has more information about sound measurement apps.  A less technical way to tell if noise levels are dangerously high is if you have to raise your voice when speaking with someone an arm’s length away.  If these rough measures indicate there may be a problem, your company should conduct a formal and complete noise survey.

Several factors affect your level of risk for hearing loss, including the following:

  • The level of noise;
  • The amount of noise – as the level of noise increases, the risk of hearing loss also increases; and
  • The length of exposure – noise is more hazardous the longer it lasts.

Constant noise at the same level is less dangerous than noises that start and stop abruptly.  Periods of quiet between loud noise allow your ears to rest, reducing your risk of hearing loss.

Some workplace chemicals can also affect your hearing.  Exposure to heavy metals, such as lead, mercury or trimethyltin can affect your hearing.  Additional dangers include exposure to organic solvents, including trichloroethylene, styrene, xylene, toluene and ethylbenzene.  Endocrine disruptors, such as Aroclor 1254 and Acrylonitrile can also lead to hearing loss.  Finally, exposure to asphyxiants, such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide can lead to hearing loss.

Symptoms of Hearing Loss

Ears do not experience pain the way the rest of the human body does.  Symptoms to be aware of include ears that feel stuffy or full.  If your ears are roaring or ringing, this indicates a high level of noise exposure.  Continued exposure to high levels of noise can result in permanent damage.  Different people experience hearing loss differently.  This can be based on genetics, gender, age, race or ethnicity and other health issues.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests employers prevent dangerous noise exposure through by controlling for noise exposure.  It suggests starting with the Buy Quiet program, discussed below.  Hearing protection must be used where hazardous noise levels have not or cannot be eliminated.  Eliminating the noise hazard is always the first and best choice.

Organizations should create and use Hearing Loss Prevention Programs.  There are several key pieces to a Hearing Loss Prevention Program.  It must include access to hearing protection devices for all employees.  It must include training and motivation to get employees to participate.  Also, noise exposure must be monitored.  This includes engineering and administrative controls.  Record keeping at every step is very important.  Finally, there must be a program evaluation to determine the effectiveness of the program.

NIOSH has tools available to help companies prevent hearing loss.  The NIOSH HPD Well-Fit is designed to inexpensively and quickly test the effectiveness of hearing protection.  It utilizes technology found on nearly every computer.  In roughly four to seven minutes it can analyze any earplug.

The Hearing Protector Device Compendium is a searchable database of all hearing protection equipment.  It was designed to help employees and safety experts select the appropriate hearing protection device for their situation.

What is Buy Quiet?

Buy Quiet is a program created by NIOSH that encourages companies to rent or purchase quieter equipment.  This is available to new companies just starting out and existing companies that need to replace equipment.  The goal is to reduce worker exposure to hazardous levels of noise.  NIOSH has materials available to companies to assist them in implementing a Buy Quiet program.  Buy Quiet helps prevent problems related to hearing loss caused by noise hazards by reducing noise levels immediately, when the equipment is purchased.  This program is only a part of the broader Hearing Loss Prevention Program, which conducts research on causes of workplace hearing loss.  It then delivers practical solutions to employers.

NIOSH recognizes that there are thousands of pieces of equipment that are used throughout the United States.  Many companies do not have the resources to retrofit existing equipment for noise level reduction.  Noise reduction is more economical and effective when it is done during the design and manufacture of equipment than when it is attempted on existing equipment.

Workers exposed to hazardous noise levels are legally required to participate in a hearing conservation program.  These programs can be expensive.  They require annual hearing tests, hearing protection for workers, workplace noise surveys and the appropriate record keeping documenting these steps.  The Buy Quiet program tries to remove workers from those programs by reducing noise levels to below 85 decibels.  Noise reduction based programs are much more effective at protecting hearing than a hearing conservation program.

Buy Quiet sounds like a simple concept, but there have been some difficulties implementing it.  One significant difficulty is that noise level information for specific pieces of equipment is not easily available to those purchasing equipment.  NIOSH has led efforts promoting its Buy Quiet program among employers and equipment manufacturers.  Any employer with employees that are exposed to dangerous levels of noise will benefit from the Buy Quiet program.

Employers Are Supposed to Protect You.  Contact Us To See If We Can Help

If you have concerns about workplace safety, give us a call.  The skilled Atlanta workers’ compensation legal team at the Bader Law Firm, LLC are committed to workplace safety. Contact us today to discuss your case.  There is no fee unless we win your case.

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