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OSHA: 20 Years of Workplace Noise Regulations

In the spring of 2008, the Occupational and Safety Administration (OSHA) – charged with keeping workers safe on the job – released the agenda for the administration’s fall session. The agenda covered numerous workplace, health-related issues including exposure to toxins on the job – certainly a safety issue.

Unfortunately, the agenda only included one long-term activity with no set completion date for the study in its list of topics under discussion. As ohsonline stated in its report:

“This is disappointing because the agency and hearing conservation professionals agree hearing loss is a significant problem in the industry, and OSHA published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in August 2002 to gather information on the extent of hearing loss among workers in different trades and then held stakeholder meetings in 2004. Now, the agency says, "Work continues on collecting and analyzing information to determine technological and economic feasibility of possible approaches."

Now, think about that for just a second. We all know the dangers of long-term exposure to workplace noise. OSHA has studied the problem for more than 40 years! There’s certainly enough data collected, wouldn’t you say? Further, the administration, 20 years ago, put into place stringent regulations designed to protect workers in noisy environments so the regulations are on the books.

Yet, the problem continues to get worse.

It’s a Noisy World in Which We Live

Noisy world
It's a noisy world

Factories and manufacturing plants have always been noisy, what with heavy equipment, stamping machines, extruders, forklifts – it’s a cacophony of sound on some assembly floors. And, by now, company owners and assembly line managers are well aware of the problems of noise-induced hearing loss and the fines that OSHA levies when workers’ hearing is unprotected. Even so, many workers spend their shifts working without any ear protection at all. By choice. Others wear ineffective hearing protection devices, enabling loud noise to enter the ear canal and damage the delicate hearing mechanism within the ear.

If There Is a Solution, Why Is There a Problem?

Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most common workplace injuries, yet it’s also one of the most insidious. Hearing loss occurs over time so the impact isn’t immediate. Drop a pallet of iron ingots on your pinky toe, the effect is immediate and you start hopping around in pain – and maybe looking around for a severed pinky toe.

Not so with hearing loss. For one thing, hearing loss has long been associated with the aging process. It’s called nerve deafness (the pros call it presbycusis) as the ear workings simply wear out, along with knee joints and that receding hairline. All part of growing up, right? Nope.

Anthropologists trekked through the African jungle to study the hearing of tribal members who had never been exposed to loud noise – at least not on a daily basis. These explorers made an interesting discovery. Tribal elders heard as well as teens in the tribe because they hadn’t experienced loud noise – except maybe during rituals and ceremonies, but not everyday standing over a jackhammer.

The study of this remote tribe demonstrated that hearing loss isn’t necessarily entirely related to the aging process. Oh sure, your inner ear gear wears out some, but not as much as it does when exposed to a lifetime of loud noise that surrounds us every day – even weekends. Hey, if you aren’t working on a loud assembly floor, you’re probably mowing the lawn or blasting your favorite tunes on your MP3 player.

Or maybe you travel the NASCAR circuit or simply live in a city with buses, subways, honking horns, semis and the general din that saturates the air around you. The fact is, workplace noise is a preventable danger, but we still live in a noisy world.

Should I Worry?

You bet you should worry. More than 27 million Americans report hearing loss significant enough to have a negative impact on their lives. Some minor hearing loss may be inconvenient. Moderate to severe hearing loss leads to isolation, depression and a host of other psychological and family problems.

And living with someone who experiences hearing loss can be more than a little frustrating, too. You find yourself raising your voice, and begging to turn down the volume on the television.

Here’s what happens: when ears are exposed to loud noise over a long period of time (with no respite in between listening sessions) the ear produces corrosive little molecules called free radicals. You’ve heard of free radicals. Scientists have associated these acidic little bad guys with everything from hearing loss to the aging process itself.

So, to ward off free radicals, nutritionists tell us to eat foods that are high in anti-oxidants: leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits and other “good-for-you” foods. Anti-oxidants diminish the damage caused by free radicals. Get the picture.

But here’s the problem: you can eat spinach all day every day and still have hearing loss caused by a loud workplace noise.

The National Hearing Conservation Association

The president of The National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA), Teresa Schulz, knows all about noise-induced hearing loss. She’s heard all the sad stories.

At a recent convention, the subject turned to tinnitus, aka ringing in the ears – for many a problem even worse than hearing loss itself. “Tinnitus can be, for many, even worse than the hearing loss itself, as the sounds can become distressing and in many cases, they never go away,” Schulz says.

Bottom line? Hearing loss is just one problem associated with workplace noise. Imagine a ringing in your ears 24/7/365 days a year. You know that’s going to get annoying fast.

Go Pro-Active In the Workplace

Noise protection
Be proactive -wear ear protection

Obviously, the best defense against hearing loss is to wear hearing protection. Depending on the workplace, this protection can range from earplugs to noise cancellation ear cups.

Don’t think of a noisy workplace as a coal mine or assembly plant. With open offices, there’s a lot of cross talk taking place throughout the day and though you may not be aware of it (it’s not painful) nonetheless it’s there. So, give a listen to the noise levels in any work place – office, outdoors, driving a semi, industrial or construction site – there’s noise everywhere.

In a very informative article on the topic of workplace noise published in ehstoday.com Brad Witt, Director of Hearing Conservation for Sperian Protection stated, “eliminating occupational noise through engineering controls should be the company’s first line of defense if possible. Certain measures, such as installing “silencers” (mufflers and baffles, for example) on equipment, work by absorbing sound.”

“Sometimes, though, it is very difficult to do that, either because it is often times not feasible or technically possible,” Witt notes.

Witt also points out that the technology to protect hearing exists but that workers don’t always wear this gear. The number one reason given for NOT taking pro-active, protective measures? Workers can’t hear each other – an important element in any cooperative endeavor.

“So even though ear plugs are passed out, workers take them out to talk to their coworkers and it defeats the whole purpose,” Witt points out.

“Technological advances in hearing protection have enabled manufacturers to come out with hearing protection that manages sound, rather than just blocking it. For instance, level-dependent earmuffs have microphones mounted on the surface of the ear cups, which feed the signal to an amplifying circuit with a built-in limiter.

While wearing them at a construction site, for example, a worker would clearly hear warning signals and co-workers’ voices, but also be protected from the intermittent noise of power tools or unexpected impact sounds,” Witt says.

So, the problem seems to come down to one of education: educating those responsible for providing utility hearing protection and educating workers about the new “hear-through” technology that equips them to communicate clearly and still protect the inner workings of the ear.

The Wrap Up

It comes down to something simple. Noise-induced hearing loss can be eliminated because today’s protection technology fits virtually any noise exposure conditions – even the jackhammer guy who spends eight a day in the noisiest environment imaginable.

All that’s required is that company owners or independent contractors or employees purchase the proper ear protection for their circumstances and then wear it. Again, today’s technology equips people to hear each other and still block destructive levels of noise.

One final note: don’t stop protecting your ears at the workplace. Practice healthy hearing at home. We are assaulted by noise everyday: lawn mower, saw, MP3 players – practice healthy hearing at work and at home.

You get the idea. No matter where you work or when you’re exposed to loud noise, take cover and enjoy hearing health all life long.

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