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Now Hear This…WHAT? I Can’t Hear You. Speak a Little Louder! Tips on Preventing Hearing Loss in the Workplace
A pallet or lumber facility can be a loud place to work. Learn the basics about hearing protection and strategies to keep your employees safe from hearing loss.
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 5/1/2010
From saws to grinders to nailing machines to other noises, pallet and lumber facilities can be a noisy place to work. Every year, approximately 30 million people in the United States are occupationally exposed to hazardous noise, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). The good news is that a little bit of prevention can provide big dividends in terms of reducing noise-induced hearing loss.
What Causes Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?
Loud noises can cause hearing loss by gradually damaging the delicate hair cells in the inner ear. Prolonged exposure to loud sounds can damage these hair cells, injuring or breaking off the top of the hair cells, according to Dr. Mark Stephenson, audiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). When a hair cell in the ear is damaged, hearing loss results because hair cells do not repair themselves.
A normal conversation may register 60 decibels, the key measurement for the volume noise created by a sound, compared to 110 decibels for typical chainsaw noise. OSHA has deemed that prolonged exposure to noise above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. Additionally, one-time exposure to a very loud sound, such as an explosion, can cause immediate hearing loss. Most of the time though hearing loss occurs gradually over time and may not be accompanied by any noticeable pain.
OSHA requires employers to develop and implement a noise monitoring program when “information indicates that any employee’s exposure may equal or exceed an 8-hour average exposure of 85 decibels.” When this occurs, OSHA requires employers to notify employees, to establish and maintain a hearing test program, and to train workers how to prevent occupational hearing loss. When engineering controls have not yet eliminated hazardous noise, OSHA also requires employers to provide hearing protectors and ensure workers wear them.
One hearing condition caused by excessive noise levels is tinnitus, a ringing sound in the ears that can occur after either immediate or gradual hearing loss. Tinnitus occurs when the damage to hair cells hasn’t gotten to the point where they produce no sound. Instead, these hairs produce ongoing sounds because they are partially damaged. They are constantly irritated by the previous damage, which the brain interprets as a sound.
Over time, complete or partial hearing loss can leave a worker with limited ability to hear sounds. This is a serious disability that should not be ignored. Also, it can pose a significant liability to companies that don’t institute an effective hearing loss prevention program.
Start with a Test
If you have heavy equipment running in your operation, it is good to have a noise audit run to see the typical levels that your employees are exposed to as well as identify ways to reduce excessive noise and create incentive for employees to wear Hearing Protection Devices (HPDs). There are two basic ways to test your noise levels and personal hearing impact on employees. The first is to use a Sound Level Meter to test whether certain noise levels could have a detrimental impact on humans. The second is to conduct personal audiometric tests on individual employees. These tests can be conducted by third-party services or by a company using equipment purchased from specialized suppliers.
OSHA suggests that companies conduct personal audiometric evaluations on employees on the following five occasions: pre-employment, prior to initial assignment in a hearing hazardous work area, annually as long as the employee is assigned to a noisy job, at the time of reassignment out of a hearing hazardous job, and at the termination of employment. Detailed records should be kept so that a company can defend itself against any frivolous claims as well as to guide improvement in hearing protection safeguards and policies.
Audiograms must be administered using properly calibrated audiometers in a sound-treated room with acceptable background sound levels during testing. The same type of audiometer and testing methods should be used from year to year to ensure consistent results. The technician conducting the tests should be familiar with current standards from the Council for Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation. Using automated testing equipment does not eliminate the need for the technician to be up to date on the latest procedures and guidelines.
Visit NIOSH’s Web site for detailed guidelines at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/96-110/audio.html
A major problem with many hearing protection efforts is that employees may not like wearing ear plugs or muffs. They may buy into the misnomer that they can cope or adapt to loud noises. But the truth is that you don’t adapt to these noises, you simply lose your ability to hear them.
The following are some of the top reasons that employees have given for not using hearing protection. Workers insist that hearing protection devices (HPDs) interfere with communication and job performance, are uncomfortable to wear, and reduce a worker’s ability to detect warning signals. Some employees complain that HPDs are a hassle that they constantly have to remove and put back in.
It can take a while for employees to feel comfortable wearing hearing protection. But once the proper HPD has been obtained and the employee knows how to properly use it, management should insist that employees use HPDs. Kind of like a new pair of shoes, it may take a little while to feel comfortable, but in time, the initial discomfort will fade away. Employees may not thank you now. But when they realize how you spared their hearing, they will likely be appreciative later.
Ideal HPD Solutions
The fact is that the best hearing protector is the one that a worker will wear. It is generally best for a company to offer a number of options that provide adequate protection and comfort. HPDs should be easy to insert correctly or use. And they should be compatible with other safety equipment and environmental factors that exist in your company.
The two major types of HPDs are ear plugs and acoustical muffs. Muffs offer the greatest degree of hearing protection because they cover the entire ear and ear canal. Ear plugs are designed to fit into the ear canal. A tight fit is necessary to effectively reduce sound levels. Ear plugs must be kept sanitized because they can be a source of ear infection. There are two types of plugs – formidable plugs and preformed plugs. Formable plugs are one-size-fits-all. They are compressed before being inserted into the ear and then expand to fill the canal. Preformed plugs are designed to fit the individual shape of a person’s ear.
A third type of HPD is canal caps, which resemble earplugs on a flexible plastic or metal band. The main advantage of canal caps is convenience. When it’s quiet, employees can leave the band hanging around their necks. They can quickly insert the plug tips when hazardous noise starts again. Some people find the pressure from the bands uncomfortable, and some designs may not adequately block all types of noise.
As with almost any safety device, there are pros and cons for each HPD option. Not every type of hearing protection is useful for every type of noise. Disposable foam earplugs may be fine for some noise exposure while earmuff-type protection may be suitable for another.
HPDs are ranked by their Noise Reduction Rating. For example, a rating of 31 means that a device under ideal conditions will reduce the decibel level by as much as 31 decibels. There are also noise-activated HPDs that allow normal sounds to pass through the ear and only “turn-on” when the noise reaches hazardous levels.
Safety product companies have developed hybrid and specialty HPDs to meet all types of special needs or requirements. NIOSH has developed an online search engine to help individuals find the perfect fit. Consider visiting http://www2a.cdc.gov/hp-devices/hp_srchpg01.asp to locate the best fit for your particular work environment and personal preference.
Does It Fit?
Improperly worn or fitted HPDs significantly reduce the hearing protection offered to the employee. When inserting formable ear plugs, NIOSH suggests a roll, pull hold approach to create an adequate seal. See Figure 1.
It is the responsibility of management to ensure that employees know proper hearing loss prevention strategies. This includes when HPDs should be used and how to properly use them as well as signs to look for to indicate hearing loss issues.
Some things should just be common sense. For example, avoid putting HPDs into your ears if your hands are dirty. This can keep you from accidentally getting your ear infected. If this is a problem based on your work environment, you can get earplugs that are pre-molded or that have stems so that you can insert them without having to touch the part that goes into the ear canal.
If you want to test to see if you have a proper seal, NIOSH has developed a test on its Web site to help you determine the effectiveness of your technique. Check out http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/topics/hearingloss/quickfitweb.htm
How Do I know if I have a Problem?
Ask these questions to evaluate your risk or the risk of your employees in the plant environment.
• Is the noise at my workplace so loud that I have to raise my voice significantly for someone an arm’s length away to hear me?
• When I leave work and am in a quieter environment, do my ears feel plugged? Or do I hear a mild ringing or whooshing noise that goes away after an hour or two?
The above are signs that you may have suffered hearing loss and should seek to use an adequate HPD.
A hearing conservation program must be implemented when employees are exposed to 85 dB or more in an 8-hour day. These programs include annual audiometric testing and require hearing protection devices, such as earplugs.
Why Should an Employer Institute a Hearing Conservation Program?
For starters, it is the law if your workers are exposed to high levels of noise in the workplace. Second, it helps you look after the welfare of your employees while limiting legal liability for lawsuits or OSHA fines.
Employees who have hearing issues are more likely to make a mistake or experience miscommunication on the job. Hearing protection can boost productivity and moral as well. The key is to start thinking about safety and hearing loss as you design your facility to minimize noise stresses on the ears of your workers.
Engineering or administrative noise controls are required when exposure exceeds 90 dB. Engineering controls include redesigning the space to reduce machinery noise, replacing machinery with quieter equipment, enclosing the noise source or enclosing the noise receiver. Administrative controls include mandating the length of time an employee can be exposed to a particular noise source, instituting an effective hearing conservation program, requiring employees to wear proper HPDs, etc.
Failure to comply with OSHA regulations can cost your company big bucks in fines. Violations can run $5,000 to $70,000 depending on the situation.
An effective hearing conservation plan must include the following: training and education, Supervisor involvement to ensure compliance with policies, noise measurement, engineering and administrative controls, monitoring and record keeping, using proper HPDs, and executive level commitment to the cause. For more detailed information on these various aspects visit NIOSH’s hearing conservation checklist at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/solutions/hearingchecklist.html