According to the CDC, about 25% of workers in the U.S. have been exposed to harmful noise on the job, and over 22 million within the last year. Surprisingly, more than 53% of these affected workers reported not wearing hearing protection, and currently, about 24% of the hearing difficulty among U.S. workers is still caused by occupational exposures. Unfortunately, most people don’t take their hearing health seriously enough. Hearing loss is most often permanent, so the only thing we can do is be aware of when we’re exposed to too much noise and take precautions to protect ourselves. This should be no different when we’re at work. To better understand the effects of noise exposure on our hearing health, let’s look at how sound intensity is measured, what’s considered dangerous, and what we can do about it.
How do we measure sound intensity?
In any environment, repeated exposure to loud noises will cause hearing loss, especially over time. What makes one sound seem louder than another is the amount of energy the source of the sound is pushing towards the listener in the form of pressure variations in the air. The intensity of the sound is measured by a sound pressure level (SPL) meter. These instruments measure sound levels by calculating the pressure of the sound waves traveling through the air from the source of noise. Devices like this display a measurement of sound intensity in units called decibels, a scale first devised by…. FUN FACT: Alexander Graham Bell (deci..bel…..get it?).
The Decibel Effect
To compare noise more simply from one environment to another, the decibel scale is a logarithmic, or exponential scale – not a linear scale. This is an important distinction to understand. Distance is a linear scale. If you increase distance from 10 feet to 20 feet for example, that’s double the length. On the decibel scale, every increase of 10 dB, sound energy is 10 times more intense. Therefore, a sound of 100dB is a billion times more intense than a sound of 10 dB (not ten times more)!
How Loud is Too Loud?
This is the reason why sounds that measure high up on the decibel scale are so concerning to our hearing health. Sound waves carrying a lot of energy can and will damage your hearing, especially over time. Exposure to 80 decibels is perceived to be pretty annoying to most people (roughly equivalent to the noise of a busy downtown street) and consistent exposure to 80dB or higher can result in irreversible sensorineural hearing loss. To better illustrate why exposure to excessive noise is so dangerous, check out this table and notice how incrementally increasing the intensity of noise affects hearing health.
How Noise Exposure is Measured
In the workplace, decibels are measured with an integrating sound level meter, or dosimeter. This instrument measures decibels, but also takes into account the time- weighted average exposure to sound. Dosimeters are therefore used to measure how much noise employees are exposed to throughout their day.
Is Your Work Environment Too Loud?
We can never assume that our workplace is safe for hearing health. It’s the responsibility of the employer to protect the hearing of their employees, and failure to do so can result in fines and even lawsuits. The only way to know for sure is to conduct a noise survey or dosimetry study conducted by CAOHC Certified Technicians and Occupational Audiologists. They will document facility noise measurements and analysis and recommend next steps for OSHA compliance.
Protecting Hearing in the Workplace
It’s critically important to make the right choices when managing an occupational health program in order to comply with regulatory and policy requirements. If a manufacturing facility is found to be too loud, then OSHA requires that the employer keep track of the hearing health of workers while protecting the confidentiality and privacy of their health records. Occupational hearing screenings are typically conducted by an occupational health nurse, audiologist, or certified Occupational Hearing Conservationists (OHC) which can be on staff for larger organizations, or outsourced.
About e3 Diagnostics Occupational Health Solutions is a national, full-service occupational health compliance testing company. Occupational health specialists at e3 help employers navigate the complex challenges of managing a hearing conservation program. They’re experts in the most current technologies and can make recommendations for the best OSHA compliant equipment and software options to purchase for hearing testing. In addition to hearing screening and hearing conservation programs, they can make impartial safety and compliance recommendations for vision screening, pulmonary function, breath alcohol and more.
To learn more about hearing compliance testing, audiology equipment, sound booths, equipment calibration and repair services, occupational software, or CAOHC or NIOSH certification courses, please visit us at e3Occupational.com
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