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How to Protect Your Workers from Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

How to Protect Your Workers from Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels annually

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a serious and irreversible condition that affects millions of workers around the world. NIHL occurs when the delicate hair cells in the inner ear are damaged by exposure to loud or persistent noise. NIHL can impair the ability to communicate, understand speech, and enjoy music. It can also increase the risk of other health problems, such as stress, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 1.1 billion young people and 466 million people of all ages suffer from disabling hearing loss, and 60% of childhood hearing loss is due to preventable causes. In the UK, about 11 million people have some form of hearing loss, and 6.7 million of them could benefit from hearing aids. In the US, about 40 million adults have some degree of hearing loss, and 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels each year.

The good news is that NIHL is preventable. Employers have a legal and moral responsibility to protect their workers from excessive noise and prevent hearing loss. By doing so, they can also improve the productivity, safety, and well-being of their workers, and reduce the costs of compensation, absenteeism, and turnover. Here are some steps that employers can take to reduce noise exposure and protect their workers’ hearing.

Doctor inspecting ear for hearing loss

Step 1: Assess the noise levels in your workplace

The first step to prevent NIHL is to assess the noise levels in your workplace. You can use a sound level meter or a noise dosimeter to measure the noise levels in different areas and tasks. A sound level meter is a device that measures the instantaneous sound pressure level in decibels (dB), while a noise dosimeter is a device that measures the accumulated noise exposure over a period of time. You can also use the noise calculator provided by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to estimate the daily noise exposure of your workers based on the noise levels and the duration of exposure.

The issue with a sound level meter or a dosimeter is that you are taking a sound reading in one area at one point in time. This doesn't always give you a true indication of the noise exposure each individual worker is being exposed to in your workplace. This is where a wearable device like spacebands comes in handy; the noise monitoring feature on the spacebands wearable allows companies to set the decibel threshold they are comfortable with for their workers.

In addition to alerting the wearable user to exposure over the set limits, the device will also measure exposure over time and alert the user if they need to take a break from a noisy area or if they need to wear PPE such as ear defenders or ear plugs. Another feature offered by spacebands is the PPE Prompt feature, which will remind workers entering a certain area that they should be wearing PPE whilst in that area.

You can book a demo to learn more about the spacebands solution and how it can help in your workplace.

The legal and recommended noise limits and the action levels for noise reduction and hearing protection are as follows :

  • The lower exposure action value is 80 dB, which means that if the daily or weekly average noise exposure of your workers is at or above this level, you must provide them with information, training, and hearing protection.
  • The upper exposure action value is 85 dB, which means that if the daily or weekly average noise exposure of your workers is at or above this level, you must take reasonable measures to reduce the noise exposure, such as engineering controls or administrative controls, and provide them with hearing protection.
  • The exposure limit value is 87 dB, which means that the daily or weekly average noise exposure of your workers, taking into account the effect of hearing protection, must not exceed this level. This is the maximum level of noise that your workers can be exposed to by law.

Man wearing ear defenders

Step 2: Eliminate or reduce the noise at the source

The best way to prevent NIHL is to eliminate or reduce the noise at the source. You can do this by using quieter machines, processes, or materials, or by introducing engineering controls, such as damping, isolation, silencing, or enclosure. For example, you can:

  • Replace noisy machines or equipment with quieter ones, or modify them to reduce the noise emission.
  • Use low-noise tools and techniques, such as electric or pneumatic tools instead of impact tools, or low-pressure nozzles instead of high-pressure ones.
  • Apply damping materials, such as rubber, foam, or plastic, to reduce the vibration and noise of metal parts or surfaces.
  • Isolate the noise source from the workers, such as by placing it in a separate room, or on a resilient mount or pad.
  • Install silencers, mufflers, or acoustic baffles to reduce the noise from exhausts, vents, or ducts.
  • Enclose the noise source with a soundproof barrier, such as a box, a hood, or a cabinet, with adequate ventilation and access.

You can also follow the Buy Quiet initiative and choose quieter equipment and machinery when purchasing or replacing them. Buy Quiet is a program that encourages employers to purchase or rent quieter tools and machinery to reduce worker noise exposure. You can use the Buy Quiet database to compare the noise levels and the costs of different products and models, and select the ones that meet your needs and budget.

Man using quiet machinery

Step 3: Control the noise transmission

If you cannot eliminate or reduce the noise at the source, you can control the noise transmission by modifying the paths by which the noise travels to the workers. You can do this by using barriers, screens, walls, or curtains to block or absorb the noise, or by increasing the distance between the noise source and the workers. For example, you can:

  • Erect temporary or permanent barriers, such as plywood, metal, or concrete, to shield the workers from the noise source.
  • Install acoustic screens, walls, or curtains, made of sound-absorbing materials, such as fiberglass, foam, or fabric, to reduce the noise reflection and reverberation.
  • Increase the distance between the noise source and the workers, such as by moving the workers away from the noise source, or moving the noise source away from the workers.
  • Rotate the workers among different tasks or areas, to limit the time spent in noisy areas.

You can also design and layout the workplace to separate noisy areas from quiet areas, and to minimize the noise exposure of your workers. For example, you can:

  • Locate noisy machines or equipment away from workers or sensitive areas, such as offices, meeting rooms, or rest areas.
  • Arrange the machines or equipment in a way that reduces the noise transmission, such as by placing them back to back, or facing away from the workers.
  • Use partitions, walls, or doors to isolate noisy areas from quiet areas, and to prevent the noise from spreading.
  • Provide quiet zones or rooms for workers to rest, relax, or communicate.

Ear defenders hanging up on wall

Step 4: Provide hearing protection

If the noise levels cannot be reduced below 85 dB, you need to provide hearing protection to your workers, such as earplugs or earmuffs. Hearing protection is a device that reduces the amount of noise that reaches the ear. However, hearing protection is not a substitute for noise reduction, and should only be used as a last resort or a temporary measure.

You also need to ensure that the hearing protection is suitable, comfortable, and effective for the workers and the noise conditions. To do this, you need to :

  • Select the appropriate type and size of hearing protection for each worker, based on their ear shape, size, and preference, and the noise level and frequency.
  • Provide a range of hearing protection options for the workers to choose from, and allow them to try them on before use.
  • Ensure that the hearing protection has a sufficient noise reduction rating (NRR), which is the amount of noise reduction provided by the device in decibels. The NRR should be at least 10 dB higher than the noise level to provide adequate protection.
  • Train your workers on how to use, maintain, and store the hearing protection properly, and how to check for signs of wear and tear.
  • Enforce the use of hearing protection and monitor its effectiveness regularly, and replace any damaged or defective devices.

Woman inserting ear plug to protect hearing

Step 5: Conduct health surveillance

You need to conduct health surveillance for your workers who are exposed to noise levels above 85 dB. Health surveillance is a system of ongoing health checks that can detect early signs of work-related ill health and help prevent further damage. Health surveillance for NIHL involves arranging regular hearing tests for your workers and keeping records of the results.

You also need to inform your workers of their hearing test results and advise them on how to protect their hearing. You need to identify any workers who show signs of hearing loss and refer them to a specialist for further assessment and treatment. You also need to review your noise assessment and control measures and take corrective actions if needed.

To conduct health surveillance for NIHL, you need to :

  • Appoint a competent person, such as an occupational health nurse or a doctor, to carry out the hearing tests and interpret the results.
  • Provide a baseline hearing test for each worker before they start working in a noisy environment, or as soon as possible after they start.
  • Provide periodic hearing tests for each worker at least once a year, or more frequently if the noise levels or the worker’s health change.
  • Compare the hearing test results with the baseline and the previous results, and look for any changes or trends in the hearing thresholds.
  • Inform the workers of their hearing test results in writing, and explain what they mean and what they need to do.
  • Advise the workers on how to protect their hearing, such as by using hearing protection, reducing the noise exposure, and avoiding ototoxic substances or medications.
  • Identify any workers who have a significant or rapid hearing loss, or a hearing loss that affects their ability to do their job or their quality of life, and refer them to a specialist for further assessment and treatment.
  • Keep records of the hearing tests and the results for at least 40 years, and make them available to the workers and the authorities if requested.
  • Review your noise assessment and control measures, and take corrective actions if the hearing test results indicate that the noise levels are too high, or that the hearing protection is not effective.

By following these steps, you can protect your workers from noise-induced hearing loss and create a safer and healthier workplace for everyone. Remember, hearing loss is permanent, but preventable. Don’t let noise ruin your workers’ hearing and health.

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