Workplace noise isn’t just annoying. Thousands of workers suffer permanent impairment of their hearing every year. In 2009 alone, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than twenty thousand cases of hearing loss.
And much of it is preventable. Changes on the factory or warehouse floor and on construction sites can have a major impact on helping workers keep their hearing intact. Educating employees on the importance of wearing hearing protection (via a thoroughgoing health and safety plan) can protect their ears from the effect of loud noise.
What’s Your Health and Safety Plan for Hearing Protection?
Most of us have had occasional ringing or a stuffed feeling in our ears. This is temporary and usually the result of exposure to a short period to loud noise. But if you are around loud noises constantly during the workday, the effect is cumulative.
Called noise induced hearing loss, or NHL, the result is a gradual loss in hearing, and a progressive loss of sensitivity to higher frequencies. Sadly, hearing loss of this type is not helped by hearing aids or surgery, unlike other causes of hearing impairment.
What Causes the Loss?
Dangerous noise comes from a range of industrial or construction equipment. Basically, equipment causes damage when its noise level exceeds 85 decibels.
This can include everything from sounds far away like a jet engine or at an intermediate distance like a lawn mower. Devices that deliver sound directly next to the ear like MP3s and other listening devices are also a significant problem.
Common noise polluters include power boats, revving engines of all types, factory equipment, power tools, pneumatic tools, guns and loud musical instruments. Again, your health and safety plan must accommodate these (and other) sorts of noise sources.
Who Is At Risk?
Most people think of factory and construction workers as the groups that are at highest risk for hearing loss. But a number of other jobs are equally dangerous.
Musicians routinely suffer from on-the-job equipment loudness. In fact, according to German researchers, working musicians head the list of those who suffer from hearing loss. It is a serious matter to musicians like Neil Young, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and Will.I.Am. Even Beethoven went deaf!
Other occupations include firefighters and police, miners, people in the military and, surprisingly, farmers. Even office workers who work in crowded buildings are at risk, especially when the risk is not identified by their company’s health and safety plan.
Preventing the Problem
Equipment that is well maintained usually produces less noise. Mufflers can be added to cushion the sound at the source. Big machinery can sometimes be enclosed to lessen the noise that emerges.
Hearing protective devices, called HPD, are mandated on most work sites where noise is a factor. A well developed health and safety plan can specify the most effective types of HPD for each work environment since each HPD has an official noise reduction rating based on laboratory testing.
It is essential to wear the HPD correctly to get the best protection. It is also essential to wear them. It is commonplace for workers to feel HPD’s are a nuisance and not necessary for occasional use. However, since the effects of noise are cumulative, HPDs should be worn every time a worker is in a loud environment.
A sound health and safety plan routinely includes information about HPDs, how to wear them correctly, and why they are essential to prevent hearing loss. Educating workers is the first step to getting them to wear hearing protection.
HPDs come in a range of designs and sizes. Some of the most common are:
- disposable or reusable plugs
- sound isolating earphones
- earmuff headphones
- headsets made for this purpose
- musician earplugs
- custom models that fit in the ear
Hearing loss from loud noise in the workplace can sneak up on an employee. Companies need to stay on top of new ways to limit the amount of noise associated with people doing their jobs. It is essential that each worker be educated about the dangers, fitted with protective gear, and shown how to use it properly.
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