Beg Your Pardon?

Nearly 30 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous noise every year. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 125,000 workers have suffered significant or permanent hearing loss since 2004. As a result, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has developed some strict regulations for occupational noise levels and exposures.

To understand what actions are necessary for hearing protection, you need to understand noise measurements and the limits in OSHA’s regulations. Noise is measured in units called decibels adjusted (dBA), which is the noise power calculated in dBs. OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 90 dBA, time-weighted for an 8-hour day. The OSHA standard uses a 5-dBA exchange rate, so when the noise level increases by 5 dBA, the amount of time a person may be exposed to that certain noise level is cut in half.

Consider hearing-protection devices (HPD) even when a portion of the day’s noise is below the 8-hour PEL, since that is the minimum requirement. As a contrast, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends noise levels below 85 dBA for eight hours.

When considering noise levels and protection, look beyond the obvious. According to OSHA’s Occupational Noise Exposure document, loud noise can also impart physical and psychological stress, reduce productivity, affect communication and concentration, and play a part in workplace accidents and injuries.

Indicators of problem noise levels include ringing/humming in the ears, having to shout to be heard an arm’s length away and temporary hearing loss upon leaving work.

OSHA requires employers to create a hearing-conservation program when workers are exposed to a time-weighted average noise level of 85 dBA or higher over an 8-hour work shift. The general industry regulation states, “Hearing Conservation Programs require employers to measure noise levels, provide free annual hearing exams and free hearing protection, provide training, and conduct evaluations of the adequacy of the hearing protectors in use unless changes to tools, equipment and schedules are made so that they are less noisy and worker exposure to noise is less than the 85 dBA.” Construction regulation does not cite these specific items, but you will need to demonstrate that you have an effective program.

Electricians or linemen might wonder when they may be exposed. The average noise level of a digger derrick is 93 dBA, a bucket truck is 97 dBA and a ground rod driver is 113 dBA. Anytime there is risk of incurring hearing damage, HPD should be worn. They may include earmuffs, earplugs, molded ear protectors or wax-type earplugs.

Earmuffs come in various models; some include electronics, which help users communicate or block impulsive noises. Low-profile earmuffs may come with small cups or large cups, which hold extra materials for use in extreme noise conditions. One disadvantage is that they can be hot, heavy and tough to wear with glasses. If this presents a problem, there are other options.

Expandable foam ear plugs conform to the shape of the ear canal. Premolded plugs are made from silicone, plastic or rubber and are available in several sizes. Canal caps look like earplugs with a flexible plastic or metal band.

Other measures can be taken to protect workers. You can modify controls to reduce noise exposures, change or replace equipment, or make related physical changes at the noise source or along the transmission path to reduce noise level. For example, you can use low-noise tools, lubricate machinery and equipment, use barriers between the employee and the noise source, and enclose or isolate the noise source.

You also can reduce hazardous noise level exposures. You can run loud machines during shifts when fewer people will be exposed, reduce the time a person is exposed to the noise, provide quiet areas where workers can gain relief from noise levels and control worker distances from noisy equipment. 

According to OSHA, “Controlling noise exposure through distance is often an effective, yet simple and inexpensive administrative control. This control may be applicable when workers are present but are not actually working with a noise source or equipment. Increasing the distance between the noise source and the worker, reduces their exposure.”

Following the safety measures identified here can point you in the right direction when implementing a hearing-conservation program. If you are familiar with the risks associated with hazardous noise and have a program in place, hopefully this is a good refresher. If you would like more information about OSHA regulations pertaining to hearing protection and hearing-conservation programs, visit

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist
Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. He has significant experience workin...

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