hearing conservation in the workplace

Paying attention is important for employers and their employees, most importantly to avoid injuries such as hearing loss, but also to avoid being blamed as an employer for damage caused away from work.  


It’s a noisy planet — so says the National Institute of Health’s public education program to prevent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) in children: “If the dishwasher is running, you might turn up the volume on a nearby TV to hear it better. Add a blender and a vacuum cleaner, and you might turn up the volume even more.” Suddenly, decibels of background noise are louder than ordinary conversation levels (60 dB), and you exceed the 85 dB threshold, beyond which NIHL occurs.  


Even worse, namely for teens and exercise enthusiasts, is the pervasive habit of listening to music through earbuds. A New York Times article, referencing the work of Brian Fligor, Chief Audiology Officer of Lantos Laboratories, features an experiment that tested the ability to listen to 85, 90 and 100 dB of pink noise, with the device turned to maximum output. Fligor found the experience instructive. He found that at 85 dB, listening is safe for a day, whereas at 100 dB, listening is unsafe beyond 15 minutes. The top volume on an Apple music player, like the iPhone, is 102 decibels, about as loud as a leaf blower. 


Data on noise exposure from the American Hearing Research Foundation indicates non-occupational noises are also regularly encountered during recreational activities, and they are a source of premature hearing reduction. Peak noise levels, in decibels, are provided in the following table, taken from Smith et al, 1999.


Noise Decibels
Firecracker 180
Gunshot 167
Car stereo 154
Children’s toy 150
Sporting event 127
Rock concert 120
Health club 120
Motorboat 115
Snowmobile 99
Movie 94


Why it matters to employers:

  • A CDC study (2011-2012) involving hearing tests and interviews indicates that at least 10 million adults have hearing loss, likely due to noise exposure.  
  • The World Health Organization (WHO, 2015) states: “Some 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of hearing loss due to the unsafe use of personal audio devices, including smartphones, and exposure to damaging levels of sound at noisy entertainment venues such as nightclubs, bars and sporting events. Hearing loss has potentially devastating consequences for physical and mental health, education and employment ... Among teenagers and young adults aged 12-35 years, nearly 50% are exposed to unsafe levels of sound from the use of personal audio devices and around 40% are exposed to potentially damaging levels of sound at entertainment venues.” 
  • Employers who manage noise and require employee noise protection have no way of controlling exposures that are not work-related. However, they are at risk for being considered at-fault when NIHL occurs. 
  • Perhaps, of the seven elements of a hearing conservation program (Measure, Control, Protect, Check, Train, Record and Evaluate) we get from OSHA requirements and best practices, training is the most important factor for the worker — so long as that training includes education. 
  • Data from the California Workers’ Compensation Institute (Claims Information System) indicates that the average NIHL claim payment was about $6,700, and that claims were uncommon; however, claims were increased in certain situations, such as a plant closing. NIOSH puts the annual Workers’ Compensation payout for NIHL at $242 million. 
  • Data suggests that Millennials, the over 75 million persons born between 1982 and 2004 (Howe & Strauss), are particularly at risk.

The bottom line for employers: manage and be proactive

  • Work with groups — millennials favor group participation and tend to be data driven. 
  • Encourage employees to download noise-level measurement apps on their smartphones, so they can visualize and experience what are dangerous levels in their own lives. NIOSH reports real-world accuracy of such screening applications. 
  • Typical costs for such apps range from free to $20. Upgrades are typically available for free apps, as well. Common apps include dB Meter, SoundMeter, dB Volume Meter, and Too Loud, among many others available.
  • Encourage interactive educational sessions regarding NIHL. Make awareness and education a feature of routine audiogram sessions.
  • Education is not an easy task, especially when dealing with younger workers who have not (yet) recognized the signs of early damage. Make them aware that people have different thresholds for noise damage, just as they do for getting a sunburn. A series of records will provide important data.
  • It is not fair that one source (e.g., the employer) may be seen as the primary cause of hearing damage when the planet is so noisy, but when compensation time arrives, other sources may be forgotten.  

Employers inherit the employee as-is. While employers are not responsible for the new hire’s existing hearing losses, they can be blamed in retrospect, if care is not taken to substantiate hearing status at the time of hiring. More difficult is the notion that young persons with existing loss, at the time of hiring, are either: (1) prone to loss just as some people are prone to sunburn, or (2) likely, careless about sound levels when not at work, and therefore, certain to continue to harm their hearing.


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