Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Best Practices in Implementing a Hearing Conservation Program

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Best Practices in Implementing a Hearing Conservation Program

Article excerpt

While the language of OSHA's Occupational Noise Standard (CFR 29 1910.95) may appear convoluted, its dictates are rather straightforward: employers who have work areas with noise levels above 85 dBA (time weighted average) must implement a hearing conservation program. Workers exposed to those levels must undergo annual audiograms; hearing protectors must be made available and are required to be worn at 90 dBA. And while implementation of an OSHA-approved hearing conservation program may appear to be a long, drawn-out process, it is not as daunting as it seems. There are a number of "best practices" employers can follow that will not only help ensure compliance with regulations, but also promote positive employee hearing safety.


OSHA requires that employers perform noise monitoring when noise exposure "may equal or exceed an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) of 85 decibels." This includes both area and individual noise sampling, utilizing sound level meters and dosimeters. Ideally, monitoring should be performed by professionals, such as noise control engineers or industrial hygienists. However, some insurance companies also provide noise measurement services at no or a discounted cost, especially for small and mid-sized businesses. Here are some monitoring tips to keep in mind:

* Document changing conditions: While noise monitoring throughout the facility is required, area monitoring is also required when changing any sort of process, be it production procedures or when new engineering controls are deployed in the workplace: for example, the addition of new assembly stations, installation of new equipment, or relocation of existing machinery. Even if noise levels drop, they need to be recorded. OSHA does not require annual monitoring, but it is highly recommended that area sampling be performed on an annual basis. Dosimeters are easy to use and keeping one on-site can give you a quick read on noise.

* Notify employees: Employees must be notified of any changes in noise levels, whether higher or lower. Posting a "noise map" in an accessible location provides workers with a visual reference to sites where hearing protection devices (HPDs) are required, and areas where it's a "good idea" to keep their HPDs handy.

* Track worker exposure: Include the TWA of an employee's noise exposure in his/her job description and/or personnel file. This can help an audiologist better understand a worker's occupational noise exposure history when interpreting his/her audiogram.

Hearing Protectors

OSHA mandates that hearing protectors-earplugs and/or earmuffs-be made available at no cost to workers exposed to an "8-hour time-weighted noise level of 85 dB," known as the "Action Level." When workers are exposed to 90 dBA over an 8-hour TWA-aka the "Permissible Exposure Limit"-or when a worker experiences a Standard Threshold Shift (defined as an average decline in hearing of 10 dB or more at 2000, 3000 and 4000 Hz in either ear), HPD usage is mandatory. While noise exposure at or above 90 dBA TWA is harmful, extended exposure to noise at 85 dBA can be a factor in noise-induced hearing loss. Also bear in mind that workers often navigate different areas of their facility, delivering goods or even visiting the restroom or cafeteria. Thus, they are exposed to a variety of noise levels, even if intermittently. It is good practice that all workers exposed to the Action Level be mandated to utilize HPDs. Here are some tips:

* Provide a variety of hearing protectors: OSHA requires employers to provide "a variety of suitable hearing protectors" at no cost to the employee. While "variety" is not specified, it is good practice to include a more robust offering. Everyone's ears are different and one earplug or earmuff style may not be comfortable for the entire workforce. There is a wide range of HPDs available, designed for specific applications and/or worker preference, ranging from dielectric and cap-mounted earmuffs to no-roll foam earplugs that facilitate communication, and banded earplugs that can be inserted quickly during intermittent noise. …

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