When do you need a hearing conservation program?
That’s a complicated question, but the short answer is whenever an employee routinely faces conditions that could prove harmful to their hearing. Here’s the problem: that includes far more workplaces than most people realize.
Whether you work in a manufacturing plant, on a tarmac or even in a sports venue, a hearing conservation program is vital for all workplaces. Here’s why you can’t afford to go without one.
What Is Occupational Noise Exposure?
Occupational noise exposure doesn’t receive as much attention as other occupational health problems, yet it’s one of the most pervasive health issues across the board. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that nearly 22 million workers are exposed to potentially unsafe levels of noise every year.
Occupational noise exposure refers to any exposure to sound as a result of your job which can result in temporary or permanent hearing damage. The severity of the damage depends on the intensity and duration of sound exposure.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much sound to damage your hearing. Exposure to sounds 85 decibels and up (roughly the volume of a vacuum cleaner) can potentially cause hearing damage, especially with repeated exposure. A good rule of thumb is the “distance rule”. Essentially, if you have to raise your voice to talk to someone who is at least three feet away from you, there’s a good chance the noise levels are over 85 decibels.
Risk to Workers
The problem? Many employers don’t realize the amount of noise their workers are routinely exposed to because they think hearing conservation programs are just for manufacturing and construction workers.
For example, hair salons. You wouldn’t think a hair salon would have to worry about having a hearing conservation program but, did you know that the noise from a typical hair dryer runs about 90 decibels? Multiply that times the number of hours salon workers are exposed to hair dryers and there could absolutely be an exposure hazard.
Even the average office worker can suffer hearing damage in the right conditions. The next time the ventilation system kicks on in your office, listen to how loud it is. Or, take retail workers who often spend their time in a work environment with loud music or those workers employed by sports venues who spend their time exposed to cheering crowds. Even if a sound isn’t unusually loud, repeated and prolonged exposure does cause progressive damage to your hearing.
The human body is astonishingly resilient, but there are some injuries we cannot recover from. Hearing loss is one of those injuries, which is why it’s vital to protect the hearing you do have because once hearing is gone, it doesn’t come back!
Why You Need a Hearing Conservation Program
First and foremost, you need a hearing conservation program if your workplace noise exposures meet or exceed established noise thresholds.
In the U.S., OSHA has set the noise threshold at or above 85 decibels averaged over 8-hours (or an 8-hour time weighted average (TWA). In addition, OSHA also considers an employee “exposed” to noise and required to be part of a hearing conservation program even if that exposure happens for just one day of the year!
In Canada, it’s not as simple. For Canadian companies, the Occupational Exposure Limits (OEL) depend on two things: the criterion level and the exchange rate. For most jurisdictions, the criterion level (often abbreviated as “Lc”) is set at 85 decibels for a full 8-hour work shift however, this differs from Quebec’s Lc at 90 decibels and for any companies that follow the Canadian federal noise regulations, the Lc is set at 87 decibels for a full 8-hour work shift. Then there is the “exchange rate” which is the amount by which the permitted sound level may increase if the exposure is halved.
Confusing? This is why implementing a hearing conservation program which identifies noise levels and then provides information on how to preserve and protect hearing is so important for your workers.
Luckily there are a lot of great resources out there to help you understand occupational noise and how to protect your workers from hearing loss on the job.
One of the most internationally revered organizations for such resources is a division of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) called NIOSH, or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Their sole mission is to conduct research and make recommendations for the prevention of work-related injuries and illnesses—including preventing hearing loss on the job. While all of their resources are good ones, a few of the more interesting and useful tools are:
- The “Buy Quiet” program which encourages companies to purchase or rent quieter machinery and tools, provides information on noise levels and encourages manufacturers to design equipment that is quieter.
- The Power Tools Database which contains sound levels and vibrations data for many commonly used power tools which have been researched and tested.
- Noise Infographics which provide colorful and downloadable infographics that discuss noise hazards for many types of workers like iron workers, carpenters, electricians and construction workers to name a few.
Implementing Your Hearing Conservation Program
The first step in the process of designing and implementing a hearing conservation program is understanding the hazard. How loud is your workplace? If you’re not sure, call an Industrial Hygienist and have them perform a noise study to sample the workplace and the employees.
However, even if your workspace is below the allowable decibel level, you can still benefit from educating your workforce on occupational noise and hearing protection. Keep in mind that prolonged exposure to a lower sound can gradually damage your hearing just as readily as a single loud sound.
A hearing conservation program allows you to educate your workers on not only your standards but on how your workers can best protect themselves from occupational noise. Yours should include information on monitoring the workplace, providing audiometric testing, the selection, care and use of hearing protection, training and what records you’re required to keep.
Knowing that you need a program is one thing. Implementing them is a whole different animal.
But the best place to start? An all-around effective safety program. That’s where we come in. We make it easy to improve your entire safety program with top-of-the-line safety software and solutions that evolve alongside you.
Ready to protect your employees? We’re ready to help. Get in touch today to learn more.
Further Reading: Damaging Decibels: Tips to Prevent Hearing Loss (with Infographic)