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Noise At Work: Harmful to Hearing and Heart

High noise levels can damage our hearing. That's an undisputable fact because it is based on scientific evidence. Now imagine a noisy work environment with factory equipment and other heavy machinery blaring at full blast, day after day. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, approximately 30 million Americans are occupationally exposed to harmful noise at work. And now a just-released study shows that high-level noise in a workplace endangers not only the hearing, but also the heart.

The Noise At Work-Heart Connection

The study, recently published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, an international peer-reviewed journal, says that years spent in a persistently noisy workplace double an employee's chances of developing serious heart disease.

Researchers based this finding on an examination of a database of more than 6,000 employees aged 20 and older who were surveyed about lifestyle, occupation and health. The participants were grouped according to those who endured loud noise at work (meaning it was difficult to talk at a normal volume) for at least three months and those who did not experience loud noise. The study found that 21 percent of mostly male employees were exposed to noisy workplaces. They were two to three times more likely to have heart disease than workers who did not experience noise exposure.

Those who endured loud noise were also more likely to smoke and weigh more than workers who experienced quieter environments. But noise emerged as a risk factor for heart disease even when controlling for those other risk factors.

The study's authors believe that noise exerts the same kind of stress on the body as sudden strong emotion or physical exertion, triggering the release of chemicals that constrict blood flow through the arteries.

Federal Guidelines on Hearing Protection

Noise At Work Hearing Protection
Hearing protection is crucial to reduce damage from noise at work

Of course, noisy work environment also significantly increases the risk of hearing loss and tinnitus. That is why a federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has established – and recently revised - guidelines for noise levels in the workplace.

The decibel level allowed under OSHA for an eight-hour day cannot exceed 90 dB; for six hours, the limit is 92; for four hours, the maximum is 95 decibels; for three hours, 97 decibels; for two hours, 100 decibels; for one and one-half hours, 102; for one hour, 105. When the daily noise exposure extends over two or more periods in a given day, the duration of each period should be combined to determine the maximum noise exposure.

For companies who follow the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) guidelines, they are protecting their employees at even lower levels than what is recommended by OSHA. NIOSH recommends for any noise over 85 decibels is unsafe and protection should be worn. For example, exposure to a sound reaching 85 decibels is safe for only 8 hours; a sound reaching 86 decibels is safe for 6 hours and 21minutes. For 90 decibels, 2 hours and 31 minutes is the save listening time.

When OSHA and NIOSH standards are compared there is a large discrepancy. Unfortunately OSHA is often followed and this has been the standard up to now. However, as recently as October 2010, OSHA announced its intention of changing its official interpretation of workplace noise exposure standards, forcing employers to take more efficient measures to protect their workers' hearing.

Tougher Noise Laws on the Horizon?

What exactly would these new measures entail and how would they shield the workers from hearing loss, heart disease and other ailments?

Currently, OSHA requires that all employers must provide protective equipment such as earplugs and earmuffs to employees working in noisy environments. The protective gear must be given in addition to (not instead of) respecting guidelines pertaining to duration of exposure (as mentioned above) and engineering controls like noise dampening equipment and muffling systems.

Now, the agency has announced its goal of requiring employers to implement all "feasible" controls – defining "feasible" as "capable of being done"– regardless of the effectiveness of the currently used protective equipment.

Right now this measure is just a recommendation, but if OSHA moves forward, employers will have to comply – despite the cost of putting the new requirements into effect – or be fined.

While the ultimate goal of this measure – protecting workers' hearing – is commendable, agencies such as the Small Business Administration warn that these costly new measures would divert funds that could otherwise be spent on creating new jobs as well as on wages and benefits.

Bottom Line: Hearing Protection Is Up To You!

Just because your employer must comply with OSHA guidelines doesn't mean you shouldn't be pro-active yourself. Being diligent about protecting your hearing in and out of work is very important.

Loud environmental noise is not only harmful to your hearing and cardiovascular health, but can also cause sleep disturbances, pain and fatigue, poor work and school performance, and increase in stress hormones.

How do you protect yourself? Better Hearing Institute advises these common-sense guidelines:

  • Know which noises can cause damage (those above 80 decibels), including jet engines, lawn mowers, motorcycles, chainsaws, powerboats, and personal stereos. If you have to raise your voice to shout over the noise to be heard by someone within an arm's length away, the noise is probably in this range. To educate yourself about noise levels, check out the Sight and Hearing Association's "Noise Thermometer.
  • Since loud music is a well-known source of toxic noise, keep the volume of your iPod or another personal audio equipment at a comfortably low volume and take frequent breaks from listening
  • When involved in loud work or recreational activities, wear hearing protective devices such as earplugs or earmuffs. They are required by law to be labeled with a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) that is based on performance obtained under ideal laboratory conditions, so keep this in mind when shopping around.

If you think you might have hearing loss, get tested and treated as soon as possible. To find a hearing professsional near you or to learn more about hearing protection, visit Healthy Hearing's Find a Hearing Professional page.

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