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OSHA Standards for Hearing Protection: Avoid Hearing Loss

Workers in any industry who are exposed to high levels of noise can suffer permanent hearing loss. Understand the employer's responsibility and the employees' rights when it comes to hearing protection.

Industrial worker wearing earmuffs for hearing protection.

Exposure to high levels of noise can cause permanent hearing loss. Damage to your hearing can be prevented, but once permanent noise-induced hearing loss occurs, it cannot be cured or reversed. Hearing loss usually occurs gradually, so you may not realize it is even happening until it is too late.

You may have hearing loss if:

  • It’s difficult to hear what people are saying in groups or meetings if there is background noise.
  • People typically sound as if they are mumbling when they are speaking.
  • You often have to ask people to repeat what they say.
  • It’s not easy to understand what others are saying when having a phone conversation.
  • You are experiencing a ringing or noises in one or both ears.
  • You sometimes don’t hear back-up alarms or a cell phone ring tone.

It seems understandable that a one-time exposure to a sudden, powerful noise, like an explosion, can damage your hearing instantly. But it’s also important to consider that prolonged exposures (day after day) to loud noise can also lead to a gradual, but permanent, loss of hearing.

Occupational noise is sometimes referred to as a stealth long-term hazard because it is a painless, gradual process.

Construction worker indicating that he can't hear you.

According to OSHA, twenty-two million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise at work each year. U.S. businesses pay more than $1.5 million in penalties annually for not protecting workers from noise, and hearing loss directly impacts the quality of life not only for those workers but also their families.

Workers who are exposed to high levels of noise can suffer permanent hearing loss and then sometimes not even surgery or a hearing aid can help. In addition, even repeated exposures to loud noise for just short periods of time can add up to permanent damage to hearing.

OSHA General Industry Standard 1910.95(c)(1) The employer shall administer a continuing, effective hearing conservation program… whenever employee noise exposures equal or exceed an 8-hour time-weighted average sound level (TWA) of 85 decibels… without regard to… the use of personal protective equipment.
OSHA Construction Standard 1926.52(b) When employees are subjected to sound levels exceeding those in Table D-2 of this section, feasible administrative or engineering controls shall be utilized. If such controls fail to reduce sound levels within the levels of the table, personal protective equipment as required in Subpart E, shall be provided and used to reduce sound levels within the levels of the table.
A sound level meter device.
Sound Level Meter

Sound intensity is measured in decibels (dB). When decibels are adjusted (weighted) for how the human ear senses sound, the sound level intensity is measured as dBA. OSHA recommends that workplace noise levels be kept below 85 dBA as an 8-hour time-weighted average. As the noise level increases, it can damage your hearing more quickly.

Repeated exposures to noise above 85 decibels or one exposure above 140 decibels can lead to irreversible hearing loss.  Fortunately, with today’s hearing loss prevention strategies and technologies, work-related hearing loss can be nearly always prevented.

What can employers and workers do to prevent work-related hearing loss?

First, find out if the noise in the workspace is hazardous. There are different ways you can measure or estimate the noise level of any working environment.

  1. A sound level meter is a handheld device with a microphone that measures noise moment to moment.
  2. A dosimeter documents the average noise exposure over time, like throughout the entire working day, or just during a particular task.
  3. A personal noise indicator is a warning device that indicates if the surrounding sound level is above or below 85 dBA.
  4. The 2-3 foot rule can be used to quickly evaluate a work environment. Stand about an arm’s length away from a co-worker and if you have to raise your voice to be heard then you should assume that the sound level is at or above 85 dBA.
  5. There are also cell phone apps that have been developed that provide sound level data. The NIOSH Sound Level Meter App is free and provides features of sound level meters and noise dosimeters.
Worker Wearing Hearing Protection

The NIOSH Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) for occupational noise exposure is 85 decibels, A-weighted, as an 8-hour time-weighted average (85 dBA as an 8-hr TWA) using a 3-dB exchange rate. Exposures at or above this level are considered hazardous.

There are several steps to take to reduce noise in the work environment before reaching for personal hearing protection.

  1. REDUCE - Choose equipment that is quieter.
  2. MOVE - Move the equipment farther away (safely, following OSHA standards) with the use of extension cords, additional welding leads, and air hoses.
  3. BLOCK - Create barriers to help block the noise.
  4. MAINTAIN - Proper maintenance of tools and equipment can result in lower noise levels.

Workers must be protected from hazardous levels of noise. If you are not required to be in a high noise area, move to a quieter area to work. Operate noisy machines during shifts when fewer people are exposed. Changing seals, lubricating parts, using sharp blades and bits, installing mufflers, and replacing faulty or worn equipment or parts can reduce occupational noise levels significantly.

OSHA Construction Standard 1926.101(a) Wherever it is not feasible to reduce the noise levels or duration of exposures to those specified in Table D-2, Permissible Noise Exposures, in 1926.52, ear protective devices shall be provided and used.

Workplace noise is measured using special noise monitoring equipment and the levels are displayed in decibels. Normal speaking voice is usually around 70 decibels (dB) and operating a loud construction excavator is usually around 110 dB. OSHA recommends that hearing protective devices be worn any time noise exposures meet or exceed 85 dBA.

When choosing hearing protection, consider the employee’s hearing needs on the job, their current hearing ability, convenience, ease of use, the work environment and the compatibility with any other PPE the worker may need to wear. The best hearing protection is a solution that is worn properly by the worker every single time they are exposed to loud noise on the job.

OSHA General Industry Standard 1910.95(i)(1) Employers shall make hearing protectors available to all employees exposed to an 8-hour time-weighted average of 85 decibels or greater at no cost to the employees. Hearing protectors shall be replaced as necessary.
Woman Hanging PPE Poster on Red Wall
  • Hearing protection must be provided for the level and/or range of noise that workers will be exposed to during their work hours.
  • Different types of devices may be used depending on the work environment as well as the hazardous noise.
  • Where noise levels are extremely dangerous or potential impact noise levels are present workers may have to wear two layers of hearing protection such as a combination of ear plugs and ear muffs.
OSHA General Industry Standard 1910.95(i)(3) Employees shall be given the opportunity to select their hearing protectors from a variety of suitable hearing protectors provided by the employer.
  • Never improvise hearing protection by stuffing cotton, tissue, wax or other items into your ears.
  • Items can get stuck in the ear canal and in severe cases puncture the ear drum.
OSHA Construction Standard 1926.101(c) Plain cotton is not an acceptable protective device.
Woman at Work Wearing Hearing Protection
OSHA General Industry Standard 1910.95(i)(4) The employer shall provide training in the use and care of all hearing protectors provided to employees.
OSHA General Industry Standard 1910.95(i)(5) The employer shall ensure proper initial fitting and supervise the correct use of all hearing protectors.
OSHA Construction Standard 1926.95(b) Where employees provide their own protective equipment, the employer shall be responsible to assure its adequacy, including proper maintenance, and sanitation of such equipment.
Worker Wearing Ear Plugs

Remember these important tips to avoid hearing loss while on the job:

  • Workers who are exposed to high levels of noise can suffer permanent hearing loss.
  • Workers must be protected from hazardous levels of noise.
  • Workers must pay attention to all signs and warnings of potentially dangerous noise levels.
  • OSHA regulations state that 85 decibels (dB) is the action level where workers may need to use hearing protection.
  • Hearing protection must be provided for the level and/or range of noise that workers will be exposed to during their work hours.
  • Never improvise hearing protection by stuffing cotton, tissue, wax or other items into your ears.
  • Proper personal protective equipment such as ear plugs or ear muffs must be maintained and worn correctly at all times.

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Hearing Protection Poster on Black Brick Wall

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