In the 20-plus years since OSHA implemented detailed noise exposure regulations (29 CFR 1910.95), diligent employers and safety professionals have monitored noise levels, posted warning signs, purchased earplugs and routinely tested employees' hearing. If they've been especially diligent, they've also conducted training programs for new employees, put up posters and established product selection groups to improve employee "buy-in."
Yet, workers continue to suffer noise-induced hearing loss at alarming rates. The cost of noise-induced hearing loss in the United States is now measured in billions (not millions) of dollars annually. What's gone wrong?
Like bringing the proverbial horse to water, setting up a hearing conservation program is the easy part; getting workers to internalize it and act on it is another matter. Nor is the liability for hearing loss just limited to noise levels at the workplace: Risks for noise-induced hearing loss can be just as prevalent off the job as on the job, and are often a lot less noticeable.
Unlike many other occupational hazards (such as chemical or electrical exposures), there are few built-in safeguards or warning signs in off-the-job noise exposures. Lawnmowers, firearms, hobby tools, motor sports and personal music players can contribute to noise-induced hearing loss. At the workplace, the offending noisy equipment is clearly posted with warning signs; but the warnings on consumer products are often tucked away in an obscure, frequently skimmed-over section of the user's manual.
Why should an employer be concerned about an employee's noise exposure off the job? Aside from a healthier worker, liability is one major reason. OSHA-required audiometric testing of exposed workers does not differentiate between occupational and non-occupational noise damage, so employers assume much of the liability for off-the-job noise damage.
A safety manager might have the strictest of enforcement policies for hearing protection for 40 hours each work week, which is just 24 percent of an employee's week. That safety manager has absolutely no control over the remaining 128 hours of that worker's personal life in a world filled with 120 dB concerts and motor sport events, 130 dB chainsaws and gas-powered blowers and 160 dB firearms. The challenge is to instill a culture of hearing conservation that works on the job, but also carries over to the remaining 76 percent of that worker's life spent off the job.
Managers of effective hearing conservation programs recommend the following strategies to bridge that gap from workplace to personal life:
Know Your Decibels
The ear's receptor cells are indiscriminate. A masterpiece recording of a Bach concerto at 92 dB is just as damaging as the bone-rattling buzz of a workplace grinder at 92 dB. According to OSHA regulations, noise sources over 90 dB must be sign-posted at work, but there are no warning signs or safety lines painted on the floor for household or recreational noise.
Teach employees to use hearing protectors for off-the-job exposures (most employers openly encourage their workers to use the company-provided protectors for personal use during noisy off-job activities). Employees should be familiar with the rule of thumb for identifying hazardous noise: if you must shout to be understood by someone standing an arm's length away, then that background noise probably exceeds OSHA's 85 dB hazardous noise limit.
Remind your workers that noise-induced hearing loss is a balance between two quantities of the noise: intensity and duration. OSHA mandates a halving of the allowable exposure time for every 5 dB increase in the noise level: 8 hours for 90 dBA, 4 hours for 95 dBA and so on.
Many noise exposures that we consider loud (the soundtrack at a movie theater or the booming bass from the megawatt-powered sound system of the car next to us at the stoplight) are too short to cause hearing loss. …