Noise in the Workplace: Combating Noise Induced Hearing Loss

noise in the workplace guide

Exposure to excessive noise in the workplace is one of the most common occupational hazards, affecting millions of workers worldwide. Prolonged exposure can lead to noise induced hearing loss (NIHL), a significant health concern that is preventable with proper safety measures. This article explores the nature of workplace noise, the risks associated with it, and effective strategies to mitigate its impact.


Workplace Noise: Overview

Noise in the workplace refers to any sound in work environments that can potentially harm the health and safety of employees. The harm typically becomes significant when noise reaches levels that interfere with communication and concentration or becomes loud enough to cause hearing damage.

There are different types of workplace noise, depending on key characteristics. Noise in the workplace can be continuous, variable, intermittent, or impulsive.

  • Continuous noise is constant and stable, typically generated by machinery such as compressors or assembly line equipment.
  • Variable noise fluctuates in level and is often produced by processes involving start-stop cycles, such as punch presses or woodworking machinery.
  • Intermittent noise includes bursts of sound with intervals of no noise, common in construction sites.
  • Impulsive noise is brief but intense, often seen in industries using explosive materials.

Causes of Hazardous Noise

The causes of hazardous noise in the workplace vary depending on the industry or setting. However, there are common sources where excessive noise stems from.

Mechanical Impacts
One of the most prevalent sources of hazardous noise is from mechanical impacts. This includes operations where heavy objects collide, such as hammering, metal stamping, and the dropping of heavy items. These activities create sharp, sudden noises that can be particularly damaging to hearing.

High-Velocity Air or Fluid
Noise generated by high-velocity air or fluid is common in settings that use compressed air tools, steam valves, or high-speed jets. When air or fluid is forced through a small opening, it creates turbulence, resulting in a broad spectrum of sound waves. This type of workplace noise can not only be intense but also produce high-frequency sounds that are particularly harmful to the inner ear.

Vibrating Surfaces
Vibration of equipment and machinery is another significant source of hazardous noise. This occurs when machine parts move in rapid motion, causing the entire surface of the machine to vibrate and radiate noise. Besides generating direct noise, vibrating machinery can cause secondary noise by inducing vibrations in the building structure itself, which is then transmitted as airborne sound.

Electrical Equipment
Electrical equipment such as transformers, generators, and high-voltage electrical boxes can emit a continuous hum or buzz. These sounds are produced by electromagnetic forces and can vary in intensity depending on the equipment's design and the electrical load. Such noise is often overlooked but can contribute significantly to the overall noise level, especially in enclosed spaces.

In industrial settings, transportation devices like forklifts, conveyor belts, and overhead cranes contribute to the ambient noise level. These sources not only raise the general noise level but also create background noise that can mask other sounds, making the environment more acoustically chaotic.

Human Activities
Activities such as shouting to communicate over loud background noise, the use of handheld tools, and the movement of materials by hand can all add to the noise level. This type of noise is often variable and unpredictable, complicating efforts for noise control.


What Is Noise Induced Hearing Loss?

worker experiencing noise induced hearing loss

Noise Induced Hearing Loss or NIHL occurs when individuals are exposed to high levels of noise, resulting in damage to the inner ear. This can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss, depending on the duration and intensity of the noise exposure.

Temporary hearing loss often occurs after short-term exposure to loud noise. This condition typically recovers within a few hours to a few days if no further loud noise exposure occurs. On the other hand, permanent hearing loss results from prolonged or repeated exposure to high noise levels or a single exposure to an extremely loud sound. The damage to the inner ear's hair cells is irreversible, leading to permanent changes in hearing ability.

Symptoms of Ear Damage from Loud Noise

Understanding the symptoms and recognizing the risk factors are crucial in preventing and managing NIHL. These can vary from subtle to significant, depending on the degree of ear damage caused by hazardous noise exposure.

  • Tinnitus: A ringing, buzzing, or whooshing sound in the ears, often the first sign of hearing damage.
  • Muffled Hearing: Sounds may seem muffled immediately after exposure to loud noise, indicating temporary hearing loss.
  • Difficulty Understanding Speech: Difficulty in understanding spoken words, especially against background noise.
  • Sensitivity to Sound: Increased sensitivity or discomfort to sounds that were previously not bothersome.
  • Fullness in Ears: A sensation of fullness or pressure in the ears, which may indicate swelling or damage inside the ear.

Who is at Risk for Noise Induced Hearing Loss?

Noise-induced hearing loss can affect anyone, but it is particularly prevalent among certain occupational groups that face significant or consistent noise exposure.

Industrial workers in sectors such as manufacturing and construction are routinely exposed to hazardous noise levels. Similarly, employees in the entertainment and hospitality industry, including those working in bars, nightclubs, and concert venues, often face high volumes as part of their job environment. Military personnel also face a heightened risk due to frequent exposure to loud sounds like gunfire, explosions, and machinery noise. Agricultural workers who operate noisy machinery such as tractors and harvesters without proper hearing protection are similarly at risk. Additionally, transport workers, including airport ground staff, are regularly exposed to high noise levels, putting them at significant risk for developing NIHL.

When to Seek Professional Help For NIHL

It is crucial to seek professional help if you experience any of the symptoms of NIHL, especially if they do not improve or if hearing loss disrupts daily activities. Early signs that warrant a consultation with a hearing specialist include:

  • Persistent tinnitus or ringing in the ears.
  • Any sudden loss of hearing, especially if it occurs right after exposure to loud noise.
  • Difficulty understanding conversations in situations where background noise is present.
  • The sensation of fullness in the ears accompanied by dizziness or balance issues.

Consulting with a professional can help diagnose the extent of hearing loss, explore treatment options, and discuss ways to prevent further damage, such as using protective hearing devices or making changes in exposure to noise.


How To Measure Noise Levels In The Workplace

Measuring noise levels in the workplace ensures the safety and health of employees. It involves understanding the exposure limits, using the right tools, and following proper measurement steps.

Noise Exposure Limits

But first, it is important to understand the concept of noise exposure limits (NEL), a regulation designed to protect workers from noise exposure and preserve hearing. OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) for noise is 90 decibels (dBA) over an 8-hour workday. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends a more stringent limit of 85 dBA for 8 hours to provide greater protection. Exceeding these limits significantly increases the risk of noise-induced hearing loss, making it essential for workplaces to monitor and control noise levels effectively.

Noise Level Measurement Tools and Steps

There are a wide array of tools used to measure noise levels. The most common nose measuring equipment are:

  • Sound Level Meter (SLM): This device measures sound pressure levels and provides readings in decibels (dB). It’s essential for assessing noise exposure in the workplace and ensuring compliance with safety standards.
  • Dosimeter: Worn by employees during the workday, dosimeters measure an individual’s exposure to noise over time, providing a more personalized assessment than static measurements.
  • Octave Band Analyzer: Used for more detailed noise analysis, this tool helps identify specific frequencies of noise, which is crucial for determining effective noise control measures.

With these tools, employers can adequately measure noise levels and gauge the noise exposure of their workers. Here’s how to do so:

  1. Identify Measurement Points - Start by choosing specific locations where noise levels are typically high or where workers spend most of their time during a shift.
  2. Calibrate the Measurement Tools - Before starting measurements, ensure that the instruments are calibrated according to the manufacturer's instructions to guarantee accuracy.
  3. Conduct Measurements - Use the sound level meter or dosimeter to take measurements at various points and times to capture variations in noise levels. It’s important to measure different types of noise, including continuous, intermittent, and impulse noise.
  4. Record and Analyze Data - Record the measurements and analyze them to determine average exposure levels. Compare these levels with regulatory limits to assess compliance.
  5. Implement Controls if Necessary - If noise levels exceed recommended limits, consider implementing control measures such as engineering controls, administrative controls, or providing personal protective equipment (PPE) like earplugs or earmuffs.


Reducing Noise In the Workplace: Strategies and Tips

worker wearing hearing protection against noise exposure

Reducing noise levels in the workplace is essential for protecting employees from noise-induced hearing loss and enhancing overall workplace safety. Implementing effective noise control strategies, conducting regular hearing tests, using appropriate hearing protection equipment, and understanding treatment options are all critical steps in this process.

Noise Control Strategies

Having noise control strategies are hazard control protocols designed to minimize loud noises at their source and limit noise exposure to enhance hearing protection. These strategies can be classified into three main categories: engineering controls, administrative controls, and maintenance.

Engineering controls aim to reduce noise at its source or prevent it from reaching the worker while administrative controls involve changing the way people work to reduce their noise exposure and limit the amount of time workers are exposed to high noise levels. Maintenance of machinery and equipment can significantly reduce noise emissions. A well-maintained machine operates more smoothly and is less likely to produce unnecessary noise.

Engineering Controls
  • Replacing noisy machinery with quieter alternatives.
  • Enclosing noisy equipment in soundproof enclosures to contain the noise.
  • Installing barriers or screens to block the path of noise transmission.
  • Applying damping materials to reduce vibrations that cause noise.
  • Fitting silencers on exhaust outlets and air intakes to reduce mechanical and airflow noises.
  • Isolating the source of noise from other areas, using vibration mounts or isolated foundations to reduce the spread of noise through the structure.
Administrative Controls
  • Rotating workers through different tasks to minimize their exposure to noise.
  • Limiting access to high noise areas to only those workers who need to be there.
  • Posting workplace safety signs to warn workers of high noise areas and require hearing protection.
  • Educating workers about the risks of noise exposure and proper use of hearing protection.
  • Regular lubrication of moving parts to reduce friction that can lead to noise.
  • Replacing or repairing worn-out parts that may rattle or cause excessive noise.
  • Ensuring that all mechanical components are properly aligned and balanced to avoid noise from vibrations.
  • Regularly checking and tightening loose bolts and fasteners can prevent vibration noise.

Hearing Protection Equipment

When noise exposure cannot be adequately controlled by engineering or administrative means, personal protection equipment (PPE) should be used. There are three primary types of hearing protection equipment designed to keep harmful noise exposure at bay.

  • Earplugs: Disposable, reusable, or custom-molded, they fit directly into the ear canal to block harmful noises.
  • Earmuffs: Fit over the entire outer ear to form an air seal, thus dampening the sound.
  • Electronic Hearing Protection: Amplifies safe sound levels while blocking harmful noise levels; particularly useful in environments where communication is also important.

Noise Induced Hearing Loss Treatment

Regular hearing tests are vital for detecting early signs of hearing loss and taking timely action to prevent further damage. Employers should facilitate routine audiometric testing for workers exposed to hazardous noise levels. These tests can help track changes in hearing over time and evaluate the effectiveness of current noise control measures.

While noise-induced hearing loss is permanent and irreversible, there are treatments and technologies that can help manage the condition:

Hearing Aids
Hearing aids are the most common treatment for hearing loss. These devices amplify sound to a level that the damaged ear can hear. Modern hearing aids are highly sophisticated and can be customized to the frequency and severity of an individual's hearing loss.

Cochlear Implants
For those with severe hearing loss where hearing aids are no longer effective, cochlear implants may be an option. Unlike hearing aids that amplify sound, cochlear implants bypass the damaged parts of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. This can significantly improve the ability to understand speech and other sounds, even in noisy environments.

Assistive Listening Devices
Besides hearing aids and cochlear implants, various assistive listening devices can improve hearing in specific situations. These include amplified phone systems, special alarms, and FM systems that can be used in classrooms or conference settings to directly transmit sound to the individual's hearing aid.

Therapy and Rehabilitation
Hearing and speech therapy can be crucial for those adapting to hearing loss. Audiologists and speech-language pathologists can offer training and strategies to help improve communication skills, including lip-reading and using visual cues to aid understanding. Rehabilitation may also involve auditory training exercises to help individuals better interpret the sounds they can hear.

Tinnitus Management
Many individuals with NIHL experience tinnitus or ringing in the ears. Managing this condition is an integral part of the overall treatment plan. Techniques may include sound therapy, which uses external noises to partially mask tinnitus sounds, and behavioral therapy, which helps individuals cope with the emotional and psychological impacts of tinnitus.



At what decibel is hearing protection required?

Hearing protection is typically required when noise levels reach 90 decibels (dB) or higher over an 8-hour workday, according to OSHA guidelines.

Which part of the ear is most likely to be damaged by loud noises?

The inner ear, specifically the hair cells in the cochlea, is most susceptible to damage from loud noises.

What to do after loud noise exposure?

After exposure to loud noise, it's advisable to rest your ears in a quiet environment, avoid further noise exposure, and seek a hearing test if you experience symptoms like tinnitus or muffled hearing.

What is the most effective means of noise control?

The most effective means of noise control is to eliminate or reduce the noise at its source through engineering controls such as modifying or replacing noisy machinery.

What are the risks of exposure to loud noises?

Risks include temporary or permanent hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), communication difficulties, and increased stress levels.

How to tell if hearing loss is permanent or temporary?

A professional hearing test is necessary to determine if hearing loss is permanent or temporary. Temporary hearing loss usually improves within hours to days, while permanent hearing loss does not improve over time.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.