Noise Exposure and Hearing Loss Prevention

by Josh Frantz, Board Certified Hearing Instrument Specialist and Occupational Hearing Conservationist

We have all heard that car with the huge speakers turned all the way up roll by, rattling the windows of nearby buildings. Or we have been to a concert (maybe stood a little too close to the stage) with the music blaring so loud our ears were left ringing for hours afterward. These are the obvious, rare, and usually avoidable overly loud situations. But what about the noise our employees may be exposed to on a regular basis? How do we know when the volume is too loud, and more importantly, what can we do about it?

According to the CDC (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), “Hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition in the United States, and is more prevalent than diabetes or cancer. Occupational hearing loss, primarily caused by high noise exposure, is the most common U.S. work-related illness. Approximately 22 million U.S. workers are exposed to hazardous occupational noise.”

How much volume is too much?

Measuring the sound level in the work environment is how we determine if an employee may be one of those people regularly exposed to excessive loud noise. Government agencies, such as OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the DOE (Department of Energy), each have their own standards that are similar but do have important differences.

Sound is measured in decibels (dB), and the higher the number of decibels the louder the sound is. The generally accepted level and exposure time to limit potential damage to a person’s hearing is 85 decibels over an 8-hour work day. As the noise level increases, the amount of allowable exposure time goes down. OSHA mandates that for every 5 dB louder, the exposure time is cut in half. The DOE exchange rate stipulates to cut the exposure time in half for every 3 dB increase in volume. This means that with 100 dB noise level (which is the noise level at a typical construction site with several tools and machines running), OSHA allows for one hour of exposure while the DOE allows for just 15 minutes.

How do I know if the work environment is too loud?

OSHA documents refer to a “quick and dirty” method of making a rough estimate as to the loudness of the work area. “A good rule of thumb to determine if a noise is too loud is the 3-foot rule. If an employee is standing 3 feet from someone and must shout to be heard, the noise level is probably over the OSHA action level and DOE exposure limit.” Here is my personal unwritten rule; if the noise is so loud that I involuntarily scrunch my face up like I just ate a lemon, it’s too loud! This amount of loudness likely requires hearing protection.

The most accurate way to measure noise at a work site is to use a noise dosimeter. These instruments are designed to measure the weighted noise level over a specific period of time and compare them to the standards provided by the government. This testing should be arranged if it is believed the work environment may be louder than 85 dB.

We have a loud area, what do we do now?

If a workplace is over the threshold for loudness, the employer should institute a Hearing Conservation Program. This type of program has many components, including regular employee hearing screening, record keeping and reporting, as well as hearing loss prevention. NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) recommends a three-step approach to controlling noise:

1. First, prevent or contain the escape of the hazardous workplace noise at its source (Engineering control)
2. Control exposure by relocating the worker to a safe area or creating shorter shifts in the loud workspace (Administrative controls)
3. Control the exposure with barriers between the worker and the noise (personal protective equipment)

It all adds up!

Our hearing is precious and should be conserved as much as and whenever possible. Be aware of the noise level in the work environment and the steps an employee can take to limit exposure. Most noise-induced hearing loss is permanent, not repairable, and most importantly, preventable.

About the author: Josh Frantz, NBC-HIS/COHC is Certified by the National Board for Certification in Hearing Instrument Sciences, a Certified Occupation Hearing Conservationist and co-founder of Advanced Hearing Providers. Advanced Hearing Providers delivers hearing claims administration and cost containment in the workers’ compensation space. Any questions can be directed to Josh at:

Works Cited

Blackwell DL, Lucas JW, Clarke TC. Summary health statistics for US adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2012. Vital health statistics, series 10, no. 260. Atlanta, GA: National Center for
Health Statistics, CDC; 2014.
Themann CL, Suter AH, Stephenson MR. National research agenda for the prevention of occupational hearing loss—part 1. Semin Hear 2013;34:145–207.
Tak S, Davis RR, Calvert GM. Exposure to hazardous workplace noise and use of hearing protection devices among US workers—NHANES, 1999–2004. Am J Ind Med 2009;52:358–71.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Information Division, Preventing Occupational Hearing Loss – A Practical Guide

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