Hazardous noise: a top workplace health issue for decades

When you think of the term “workplace injury,” what comes to mind is probably along the lines of a construction worker being struck by a mishandled object; a machine operator flipping the wrong switch; or a warehouse worker straining her back when a heavy box shifts. You might even picture someone suffering from a repetitive stress injury like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Preventable hearing loss is among the most common job-related injuries, and yet few people ever think they may be at risk. Did you know that an estimated 30 million people are exposed to hazardous levels of noise on the job? It’s true and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, thousands of people suffer permanent, significant loss of hearing every year — for example, over 21,000 in 2009 alone. That’s why OSHA and the BLS have considered hearing loss from work-related noise levels as one of the top occupational health issues in the U.S. for more than 25 years.

Dangerous levels of noise on the job can damage hearing instantly — but also over time

OSHA considers it unsafe for workers to be exposed to noise of 85 dBA (weighted decibels) or higher over the course of 8 hours. In general industry, employers must implement an effective hearing conservation program whenever noise levels average 85 dBA or more, weighted for time, over an 8-hour period.

That said, very loud noises can cause permanent, physical damage to your ear quite quickly. Like other injuries caused by repetitive stress to the same body part, however, chronic exposure to lower levels of noise can cause the same or similar damage over time.

OSHA’s noise exposure rules take that into account by limiting the amount of time a worker can be around that noise. The louder the noise, the shorter the period of exposure the rules allow.

How would I know if the noise levels are dangerous at my job?

Do you have to shout to have an ordinary conversation? At the end of the day, do you hear humming or ringing in your ears? Those are signs your hearing is at risk.

Interested in knowing how many decibels of noise some familiar noises cause? To help you get a sense of decibel levels, listen to them on the NIOSH Sound Meter, a simple tool developed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

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