All about OSHA's noise and hearing regulations
Worried about noise exposure on the job? Fortunately, the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) has in place standards and programs specifically aimed at reducing the risk of hearing loss among American workers.
Work is one of the most common places people will be exposed to harmful levels of noise, which puts them at risk of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent and often progressive—but it often takes years to develop. That's why it's so important to protect your hearing throughout your working years.
Here's a look at what OSHA expects from employers:
OSHA hearing conservation program
Sound is measured in decibels. According to OSHA's standards, employers must implement a hearing conservation program "when noise exposure is at or above 85 decibels averaged over 8 working hours, or an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA)."
This does not mean you have to be exposed to 8 continuous hours of loud sound to qualify for help with noise exposure. The key phrase is "averaged"—meaning, for example, if you have just two hours of very loud sound exposure (100 dB, or about the sound of a motorcycle at close range) in an otherwise quiet workplace, then you've still met that 8-hour average threshold. See table G-16, permissible noise exposures, for more on how this plays out, as well as the chart at right.
How do hearing conservation programs work?
In general hearing conservation programs "strive to prevent initial occupational hearing loss, preserve and protect remaining hearing, and equip workers with the knowledge and hearing protection devices necessary to safeguard themselves," OSHA states.
What does this look like in real life? Essentially, that employers develop and carry out plans that reduce noise in the work environment while also providing equipment and materials that help workers protect themselves. For example, a laborer may be given lower-noise power tools and earmuffs that lower sound levels to less harmful levels, and receive education on NIHL.
Other parts of a hearing conservation program include:
Note: OSHA has developed hearing standards specifically for the construction industry, too.
Reducing noise: Engineering controls and administrative controls
A good noise reduction plan should include measurement of sound levels in the workplace followed by making changes that actually reduce noise levels—and not just handing out earplugs to a few workers and hoping they'll use them appropriately.
Reducing noise can be done in many ways, which OSHA calls "noise controls." When an employer makes changes to equipment or the surrounding environment, it's known as an "engineering control," such as putting up a barrier or curtain that blocks sound, and/or purchasing low-noise tools and machines.
Another way to reduce noise is to use administrative controls. This means employers makes adjustments to the work schedule or workplace that don't require much physical modification. For example, limiting a worker's amount of time spent at a noisy machine, or running noisy equipment when fewer workers are around, or even providing a "quiet area" where workers can rest their ears.
What about earmuffs and earplugs?
These can certainly help, but as OSHA explains, hearing protection devices "are considered an acceptable but less desirable option to control exposures to noise and are generally used during the time necessary to implement engineering or administrative controls, when such controls are not feasible, or when worker's hearing tests indicate significant hearing damage." In other words, they put a Band-aid on the problem, but do not cure it.
(Regardless, it is always a good idea to protect your hearing from harmful noise, whether at work and at home. Healthy Hearing recommends everyone own earplugs or earmuffs and wear them when doing noisy things, such as firing guns or listening to live music, regardless of age or background.)
How do you know if a sound is too loud?
A quick rule of thumb is if you need to raise your voice to speak to someone three feet away, then it may be too noisy (over 85 dB). More: How loud is too loud?
You can also use sound measurement apps, including one from OSHA, to directly measure sound in your environment.
It's not always possible to know, though, as not all worksite sound is predictable or easily measurable. But later, if you experience signs of hearing damage after the exposure—such as muffled sound or ringing in the ears—you may have been around sound that's harmful. Sudden blasts at a worksite, for example, may only last seconds but cause severe hearing damage.
Workers have the right to a safe workplace and freedom from being affected by noises loud enough to induce hearing loss. In regards to their hearing, the Occupational and Safety Act (OSH) of 1970 provides workers with the rights to:
Workers' comp for hearing loss
In many situations, workers can file for workers' compensation benefits if they believe their hearing has been damaged on the job. This varies widely by state.
What if my employer isn't helping with noise levels?
OSHA provides a wealth information for workers on their site. They also provide specific guidance on what to do if you're being exposed to any harmful activities, not just noise. It states:
"If you believe working conditions are unsafe or unhealthful, you may file a complaint with OSHA concerning a hazardous working condition at any time. If possible, bring the conditions to your employer's attention. If the condition clearly presents a risk of death or serious physical harm, there is not sufficient time for OSHA to inspect, and, where possible, a worker has brought the condition to the attention of the employer, the worker may have a legal right to refuse to work in a situation in which he or she would be exposed to the hazard. If you have questions about what to do, contact your local OSHA office. We will keep your information confidential. We are here to help you."