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OSHA Hearing Conservation Program: How Noisy is too Noisy?

Posted: August 31st, 2022

Authors: Heather B. 

What are the Standards?

The United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates noise under Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the General Duty Clause. This section is used to address hazards for which there are no specific standards. The General Duty Clause requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees’ employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”  For general industry, occupational noise exposure is regulated under 29 CFR 1910.95 and 28 states have their own state programs that regulate noise exposures.  In the workplace, noise levels above 85 decibels (dbA) require hearing protection or engineering controls to mitigate the source.

As a comparison, equipment like lawn mowers, activities like vacuuming, or using earbuds or headphones with the volume set around 70%, all average about 85-90 dBA. Noise around 85 dbA which is loud enough that you must raise your voice to be heard by someone three feet away, can damage your hearing after repeated exposures lasting eight hours or more.

What are the health effects for an employee exposed to noisy environments?

Beyond permanent hearing loss, loud noises can cause other physical and mental stress.  The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has published studies that indicate loud noise can induce mental stress with symptoms of tiredness and irritability and also can increase blood pressures in employees.  The U.S. EPA has also published studies showing direct links between noise and health. Problems include stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity. Noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the most common and often discussed health effect, but research has shown that exposure to constant or high levels of noise can cause countless health effects.

What’s in a Hearing Conservation Program?

OSHA requires a hearing conservation program be developed and implemented if employee noise exposures equal or exceed an 8-hour time-weighted average sound level of 85 dba or a dose level of fifty percent. Your program must include noise monitoring and test results, indicating noise levels have reached the action level. The employer must also establish and maintain an audiometric testing program for employees whose exposure may equal or exceed these values. Audiometric exams must include an initial/baseline exam, followed by an annual exam, and be performed by a licensed or certified audiologist, otolaryngologist, or another physician. Any shifts in hearing that indicate a standard threshold shift must be further evaluated to ensure proper hearing protection is being worn by the employee and/or there is not a medical pathology caused or aggravated by the wearing of hearing protection. Regardless, the employee should be sent for a follow-up otological exam.

Your program must also include an annual employee training program that covers the effects of noise on hearing, the purpose of hearing protectors and attenuation of various types, and instructions on selection, fitting, use, and care, and the purpose of audiometric testing with an explanation of the test procedures.

Last, your hearing conservation program must maintain records of the exposure measurements for a minimum of two years, employee audiometric exams for the duration of employment, and training records.

As the Safety and Health Manager, what can you do to minimize noise at your facility?

Common Engineering Controls

  • Choose low-noise tools and machinery,
  • Maintain and lubricate machinery and equipment (e.g., oil bearings),
  • Place a barrier between the noise source and employee (e.g., sound walls or curtains), or
  • Enclose or isolate the noise source.

Common Administrative Controls

  • Operate noisy machines during shifts when fewer people are exposed,
  • Limit the amount of time a person spends at a noise source,
  • Provide quiet areas where workers can gain relief from hazardous noise sources, or
  • Control noise exposure through distance, which is often an effective yet simple and inexpensive administrative control. Specifically, for every doubling of the distance between the source of noise and the worker, the noise is decreased by 6 dBA.

What Monitoring is Required?

When information indicates that any employee’s exposure may equal or exceed the action level, the employer must develop and implement a monitoring program. Per 1910.95(d)(1)(i), “The sampling strategy shall be designed to identify employees for inclusion in the hearing conservation program and to enable the proper selection of hearing protectors.” This may include area or personal sampling, depending on worker mobility, significant variations in sound level, or a significant component of impulse noise. Dosimeters or noise measuring devices are used in both circumstances. For area sampling, dosimeters are placed in specific locations where continuous, intermittent, and impulsive sound levels range from between 80 dba to 130 dba. In comparison, personal noise dosimeters are attached to the employee’s clothing. The duration of tests must be at least 8-hours and dosimeters must be calibrated prior to each test to ensure accuracy. Following the end of the monitoring period, the noise data is downloaded from the dosimeter and compared to the OSHA permissible exposure levels and evaluated. Employees are then notified if their exposure exceeds the 8-hour time-weighted average of 85 dba. Engineering and/or administrative controls must then be chosen and implemented to protect employees, and audiometric exams and training must also occur.

How can I get Assistance with my Program?

ALL4 provides Safety and Health and Industrial Hygiene services.  If you have questions or need assistance with monitoring or changes to your hearing conservation program, please reach out to Heather Brinkerhoff at hbrinkerhoff@all4inc.com.


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