“Excuse me, can you repeat that, please?”
It has been estimated that one in ten Americans suffer from hearing loss. Although not always severe, many of them have lost some of his or her ability to understand normal speech patterns. Of all the reasons people begin to lose their hearing, age is the most prevalent. However, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), it is estimated that 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have high frequency hearing loss due to exposure to loud sounds or noise while at work or during leisure activities.
The ear is comprised of three main parts: the outer, middle, and inner ear. Sounds received through the outer ear cause tiny bones in the middle ear to vibrate. These vibrations then travel to tiny nerve endings located in the inner ear. The brain then interprets these vibrations sent from the nerve endings as a voice, back up alarm, honking horn, etc.
If a noise is too loud or continues too long, these tiny nerve endings can be damaged or destroyed. As nerve endings are destroyed, the ability to hear is compromised. Unfortunately once these nerve endings are damaged, there is no way to restore them.
Loud noises can also affect more than just your hearing. A condition called tinnitus, causing ringing in the ears, can also be experienced by those exposed to loud noises and it can be permanent. Other issues employees have experienced when exposed to loud noise includes increased blood pressure, anxiety, irritability, and difficulty remaining focused.
So when is hearing protection required? OSHA requires a hearing conservation program when employees are exposed to noise levels of 85 decibels or greater, measured over an eight hour time frame. This is also referred to as the action level. So how do we know when noise exposure has reached the action level? The only way to determine an accurate level of noise exposure to employees is to complete a sound level survey using sound level meters. If the results of the sound level survey indicates employees are exposed to loud noise above the action level, the location must first try to remove or reduce the noise exposure using engineering or administrative controls. If noise levels cannot be reduced to acceptable noise levels using these methods, then hearing protection in the form of earplugs or ear muffs must be used. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as hearing protection, must always be considered the last line of defense.
Remember, all hearing protection devices must be labeled with a noise reduction rating, because all hearing protection devices are not the same. Again, it is critical to know the noise levels employees are exposed to, so that proper selection can be made. If employees are required to wear hearing protection, the employer must provide the earplugs or earmuffs. They must also be trained on the proper use, limitations, and hygiene issues associated with the hearing protection device provided.