Did you know the most common work-related injury in the United States isn’t back injuries or sprains? It’s actually noise-induced hearing loss, and 22 million workers experience noises in the workplace that are loud enough to cause hearing damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When noise levels in the workplace reach 85 decibels (dB) or higher, OSHA requires employers to take steps to reduce this hazard and prevent hearing loss in employees. These standards are listed under 29 CFR 1910.95. At that level of sound, people typically have to shout to hear each other, and hearing damage can begin to occur if the exposure persists.
For reference, OSHA explains that a normal conversation can be about 70 dB, truck traffic is 90 dB and a jackhammer is 130 dB. At higher levels, damage to hearing can occur much more quickly than at lower decibels. The decibel scale is logarithmic, so as the number increases it does so exponentially. For example, if a circular saw operates at 107 dB and another operates at 96 dB, the noise energy of the second saw is 90 percent less than the first saw, meaning it’s a lot quieter (although it’s still very loud).
Many sounds in the workplace can cause high noise levels, especially in construction and manufacturing environments. Machinery and power tools are the culprits for quite a bit of this noise, and to help reduce the number of hearing loss injuries among workers, the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) began the Buy Quiet initiative several years ago. Buy Quiet encourages workplaces to reduce noise hazards at the source by opting for power tools and machines that make less noise than those currently in use.
NIOSH’s Buy Quiet Initiative
Earlier this month NIOSH launched a new website for Buy Quiet with informational and educational materials related to the program.
The program emphasizes reducing hearing hazards by selecting tools and machines that make less noise or replacing old machinery with newer, safer options. NIOSH says this should take place during the initial design phase of a process or when old equipment needs to be replaced. Doing so will reduce hearing hazards, help companies comply with OSHA regulations for noise exposure and even save a business money. According to NIOSH, a business would save about $100 for every decibel noise is decreased as the result of buying quieter equipment. The costs of other parts of a hearing protection program like PPE, hearing screenings and workers’ compensation claims can be significantly reduced when noise levels are lower to begin with.
To assist with this process, the Buy Quiet website includes a PowerTools Database where visitors can compare the noise levels of various power tools including circular saws, drills, belt sanders, impact wrenches and other common tools that make a lot of noise. The database even includes audio files to help employers understand and assess sound levels.
Employers should keep in mind that there are two measurements of sound for any given machine or tool. The sound power level is the noise energy a machine produces, which is always the same value. The sound pressure level (measured in decibels), however, is the measure of a machine’s noise level in a specific location. It is usually measured at an employee’s ears.
Basically, this means when you bring new equipment into the workplace, it may actually be louder based on factors like the acoustics of the room and its proximity to people. Manufacturers may provide information about both of these values, but the sound pressure level will likely vary when the machine is in your facility.
Assessing Noise Exposure Levels
Determining whether your facility would benefit from choosing quieter equipment requires paying attention. Workers may experience noise levels differently, but if someone comments about how loud something is, that complaint should be taken seriously. OSHA recommends doing a survey of the workplace using a sound level meter. During this tour, walk around and take sound samples in areas you suspect are noisy and where workers usually stand. If these measurements suggest high levels of noise (above 80 dB), further sampling using a noise dosimeter, which measures sound exposures over a period of time, should be used.
Did your assessment find high sound levels? If so, considering some of Buy Quiet’s recommendations is likely a good idea—both to keep your employees safe and help your facility achieve OSHA compliance.
Options for Reducing Noise Levels
Maybe replacing noisy equipment isn’t feasible for your facility right now. If that’s the case, it may be time to consider other methods for controlling noise hazards like engineering controls, changes to work methods and PPE.
Sometimes it is possible to add sound dampening to a machine. For example, a company that collects recyclables in the United Kingdom found its workers were being exposed to high noise levels when they emptied bottles into the hoppers of their collection trucks. The reason for this was the sound of glass bottles bumping against each other was amplified by the metal surface of the hoppers. To resolve this problem, the company lined the hoppers with rubber, which lessened the noise.
Engineering controls like this one will vary widely depending on the equipment used at your workplace and the tasks performed, but solutions like the one used by the recyclables collector demonstrate that noise-reducing techniques don’t need to be complicated.
When changes to machinery aren’t possible, work methods can be adjusted. This could involve having a worker control a machine from a safe distance or only scheduling workers to work near noisy equipment for short periods of time.
If you’ve exhausted all of your options for reducing sound and noise levels are still high, it’s time to select appropriate PPE like earplugs or earmuffs. These options are important, but they can reduce an employee’s ability to hear other people or hear noises in the workplace like vehicles backing up or alarms going off. That’s why reducing noise in other ways is often preferable. You should use whatever means are necessary to prevent hearing loss in your employees, though, because once an employee’s hearing is reduced, his or her safety may always be compromised by the inability to hear important noises.
Commit to Buying Quiet
Hearing damage is not reversible, so its prevention should be taken seriously. The Buy Quiet website offers many resources to help employers design workplaces that create less noise. Buying quieter equipment will be a good investment in the long run, so see if this program would benefit your workplace. Learn more in this video from NIOSH: