What's Really Damaging Your Workers’ Hearing?

By Megan Headley

Approximately 30 million people in the United States are exposed to hazardous noise at their workplace each year, according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) website on occupational noise exposure, making noise-related hearing loss one of the most prevalent occupational health concerns in the United States for the last 25 years.

Because hearing loss is a significant workplace problem, numerous standards are in place to offer protection to workers across a variety of industries. “ OSHA’s noise standard has two main points,” explains Mark Lies, a partner in the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. “At a certain level of noise — 85 decibels — you have to have everybody get hearing protection and you have to check their hearing every year to make sure their hearing is not degrading because of the noise of the workplace.”

Despite the standards in place, in 2012 hearing loss accounted for more than 21,000 cases of reportable workplace injuries, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — virtually unchanged from the previous three years. So why are hearing loss incident rates holding steady? Perhaps it’s because workers, and safety professionals, are still becoming aware of new and surprising ways in which the sensitive ear is being abused.

Expand Your Scope

Dave Fabry, vice president of audiology and professional relations for Starkey Hearing Technologies, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based provider of hearing healthcare, has found that many professionals consider hearing loss to be a “blue collar affliction,” although evidence suggests this is hardly the case. By way of example, Fabry says, “Although the situation has improved dramatically in the past decade, the suction and drills used by dentists placed them and their hygienists at risk for noise-induced hearing loss.” It’s a good reminder that it’s not just loud machinery on a factory floor that can lead to occupational hearing loss; any lengthy exposure to constant noise that can potentially damage hearing.

In addition, when safety professionals provide hearing protection for factory floors, they are not accounting for the potential for hearing problems to crop up in the office environment. In fact, Fabry points out that “open” office environments are becoming an increasingly bigger contributing to hearing damage. “Sometimes, in an effort to overcome workplace distraction, people are wearing noise-cancelling or insert earphones to listen to MP3 players. If they are not careful, they might be listening to music at potentially damaging levels. Anything above 85 decibels is harmful, especially when experienced over an 8-hour workday,” Fabry says.

Is it the safety officer’s job to police employee media player use? Hardly. But raising awareness of this common problem could help keep your workforce healthier for the long term. One way to help the entire workplace is to educate employees as to these hidden dangers, such as by including notes in your office newsletter or notices on the kitchen bulletin board explaining the best way for people to enjoy their tunes. “One mistake people make with traditional earplugs is not inserting them fully,” Fabry explains. “Pull up and back on the ear to ensure that the outer surface is flush with the tragus.”

Or why not bring attention to hearing problems in a fun way by encouraging employees to take turns sharing their tunes on an office media player on your casual Friday, thereby eliminating the problem of poorly placed headphone inserts?

Active Controls

Back in the industrial environment, many safety officers find that standard ear protection such as headphones is but the first step in creating a “quieter” environment.

“Once you get over 90 decibels then you have to use engineering controls, or at least try to,” Lies says. “That means putting noise dampening devices on your machines and trying to reduce the noise levels for your employees. If you’re doing forging or pounding or grinding, or if you have a lot of people working on fixed stands near machines, or you’ve got a lot of material banging together on conveyors, etc. — you’re going to have high noise levels. The noise bounces off the walls and the ceilings and it all comes back in the flow of energy. That energy hits your ear and, over time, it destroys the very sensitive nerves in your ear and your hearing degrades,” he says.

Protecting your workers is the primary goal, of course, but ensuring that your workforce is trained on using proper hearing protection also will help you to avoid an OSHA violation.

“If you have high noise levels above a certain level [OSHA inspectors are] going to ask where your noise monitoring is and where your hearing conversation program is,” Lies says. “If you’re above another level they’re going to ask ‘how did you try to eliminate noise in your workplace. By buying quieter equipment? By putting some type of protective device throughout? What did you do?’”

Taking a fresh look at your hearing conservation program in the new year can help you better protect all of your workers from what is one of the most common disabilities.

About the Author

Megan Headley is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Va. She can be reached at rmheadley3@gmail.com.