Don't Neglect Noise Exposure in Setting up Workplace Safety Programs
These environmental elements include air quality, workplace temperature and, possibly most important, noise levels. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, noise, or unwanted sound, is one of the most common health problems in American workplaces. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that 30 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise. Exposure to high levels of noise may cause hearing loss, create physical and psychological stress, reduce productivity, interfere with communication, and contribute to accidents and injuries by making it difficult to hear warning signals.
Although noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most common occupational illnesses, OSHA officials said it is often ignored because there are no visible effects and it usually develops over a long period of time. In addition, there is no pain, except in very rare cases. What does occur, the agency said, is a progressive loss of communication, socialization and responsiveness to the environment.
Who's at risk? Noise levels should be monitored in all workplaces. However, some environments present more risks of noise-related injuries than others. Construction workers are especially affected because they often work around noisy vehicles and power equipment.
Sources of noise in an office environment include coworkers, ventilation systems, fans, computers, photocopiers, fax machines, telephones, and everyday outdoor noises, such as traffic. Noise in the office almost never reaches a level that is harmful to employees' hearing. However, according to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, it can be a distraction that is detrimental to performance and productivity. The department said studies have shown that noise is most disruptive when workers are performing tasks that are mentally demanding, require attention to detail, or rely on spoken communication.
Take steps to address noise. A comprehensive health and safety program should take into account workplace noise levels. One method for assessing noise-related risks is to hire a consultant to take measurements with a sound level meter. However, according to the DL&I, an easier method is to use your judgment regarding noise levels. Seek input from employees and ask them whether they have any concerns about noise, or if it interferes with communication or creates a distraction.
You can take several steps to reduce or eliminate excessive noise levels. According to OSHA and DL&I, employers should:
--Seek quite machinery and maintain equipment.
According to safety experts, many manufacturers of power equipment and vehicles have made significant strides in recent years to reduce the noise output of their products. Examples of built-in noise controls include insulated cabs on trucks, tractors and other construction vehicles, and insulated generators.
Because these noise controls are not often well advertised by manufacturers, employers should carefully review machinery and other tools before they make purchases. If purchasing new equipment is not feasible, some manufacturers have developed noise-reducing retrofits for their older products.
Employers should also take steps to maintain existing equipment and vehicles to prevent noisy malfunctions. Equipment and machinery can become louder over time if routine maintenance is neglected. Tightening nuts and bolts, adjusting engines, and oiling or greasing moving parts can reduce noise levels, sometimes dramatically, according to DL&I.
--Isolate or enclose equipment that generates noise. A noise source that stays in one place can be enclosed in an insulated box, booth or room. Noisy generators and other machinery are often controlled in this way. The enclosure, according to DL&I, usually has two layers -- an outer layer made of heavy stiff material like wood, metal or concrete and an inner noise-absorbing foam layer.
--Install sound-absorbing tile or carpet. Tile and carpet can significantly cut down on noise levels.
--Muffle engine and compressed air noise.
Using mufflers on engines is a well-known method of reducing noise. Sometimes they are an option and have to be specifically ordered. Special silencers are also available for compressed air equipment and fans.
--Train employees on hearing conservation strategies.
Under OSHA standards, employers must institute a training program for all employees with noise exposures at or above the action level and ensure employee participation. The action level is noise exposures that are at or above an eight-hour time-weighted average of 85 decibels. Employees must be provided with information on the effects of noise on hearing; the purpose of hearing protectors and the advantages, disadvantages and attenuation of various types; and the purpose of audiometric testing and an explanation of test procedures.
--Consider job rotation. When engineering controls are not feasible or are not sufficient to reduce noise levels, implement administrative controls such as job rotation. For example, limit each employee to a minimum of two hours a day at noisy tasks like operating a jackhammer or punch press. In addition, have each employee work the rest of the time in a quiet area.
--Have conference rooms available for meetings and conversations. To prevent distractions in the office, move conversations and meetings to conference rooms or other enclosed locations away from employees.
--Offer employees personal protective equipment.
OSHA officials said hearing protection devices are considered the last option to control exposures to noise. This type of personal protective equipment is generally used during the time it takes to implement engineering or administrative controls, or when such controls are not feasible. Hearing PPE can include expandable foam plugs; pre-molded, reusable plugs; canal caps; and earmuffs.
December 1, 2008
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