Protection from Workplace Noise

Hearing loss is permanent but also preventable.

By Alexandra Walsh

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise at work each year. But whether you operate a jackhammer or a drill rig—hearing loss is preventable.

If you notice you need to raise your voice to speak to someone 3 feet away, noise levels might be over 85 decibels. Several sound-measuring instruments are available to measure the noise levels in a work area. These include sound level meters, noise dosimeters, and octave band analyzers.

Noise may be a problem in your workplace if you:

  • Hear a ringing or humming in your ears when you leave work
  • Must shout to be heard by a coworker an arm’s length away
  • Experience temporary hearing loss when leaving work.

The Sound Level Meter App released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is one tool available to the public to download on mobile iOS devices that measures sound levels in the workplace. It also provides noise exposure parameters to help reduce hearing loss induced by occupational noise. The NIOSH Sound Level Meter is available to the occupational safety and health community as well as the general public.

Why Jobsite Noise Control Is Important

Exposure to high levels of noise can cause permanent hearing loss, and it is evident that jobsites with well drilling operations are noisy and can be a significant source of noise exposure.

Loud noise can also reduce workers’ productivity and contribute to workplace accidents by making it hard to hear warning signals. Hearing loss from loud noise limits your ability to hear high frequencies, understand what someone is saying, and reduces your ability to communicate—which can lead to social isolation.

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 happening until it is too late.

Noise can also affect your body in other ways. A recent study found that workers persistently exposed to excessive occupational noise may be two to three times more likely to suffer from serious heart disease than workers who were not exposed.

How Does Hearing Damage Happen?

A one-time exposure to a sudden powerful noise, such as an explosion, may damage your hearing instantly. Prolonged exposures over time to loud noise can lead to a gradual, but permanent, loss of hearing.

Damage can occur within the ear at noise levels as loud as running a lawn mower for eight hours. At first, this may cause a temporary loss of hearing that may last as long as 14 to 16 hours. But with repeated exposure to high noise levels and periodic exposures to very high noise levels—the use of drilling equipment—your hearing may not fully recover.

More often, the loss of hearing occurs slowly over time from exposure to moderate levels of noise. Hence, workplace noise is sometimes referred to as a “stealth long-term hazard” because it is such a painless, gradual process. When that continues to happen over time, the hearing loss becomes permanent.

In addition to hearing loss, you also may experience ringing in the ears. This condition is called tinnitus and can occur even without other apparent hearing loss.

Is the Jobsite Too Noisy?

Sound intensity is measured in decibels (dB). When decibels are adjusted for how the ear senses sound, the sound level intensity is measured as dBA. Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, which means a small increase in the number of decibels results in a huge change in the amount of noise and the potential damage to a person’s hearing.

So, if the level increases by 3 dBA, this doubles the amount of the noise and reduces the recommended amount of exposure time by half.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends that workplace noise levels be kept below 85 dBA as an 8-hour time-weighted average. As the noise level increases, it damages your hearing more quickly.

Research indicates that your hearing can be damaged by regular 8-hour exposures to 85 dBA. When noise is as loud as 100 dBA (like a jackhammer or stud welder), it can take repeated exposures of as little as one hour per day to damage your hearing.

Safety and health inspectors measure sound or noise levels using a device called a sound level meter. OSHA uses noise dosimeters to document the average noise exposure over a working day or of a particular job task for part of the workday.

When a sound level meter is not available, workers can use the 2- to 3-foot rule. Stand about an arm’s length away from a coworker. If you have to raise your voice to be heard 2 to 3 feet away, you should assume the sound level is at or above 85 dBA.

Noise Control at the Jobsite

One of the best ways to reduce exposure to hazardous noise on a worksite is by planning for potential exposure before activities start. When jobs produce high noise levels, there are ways to reduce your exposure other than or in addition to wearing hearing protection.

Engineering controls involve modifying or replacing equipment or making physical changes at the noise source or along its transmission path to reduce the noise level at the worker’s ear. Examples of inexpensive, effective engineering controls are:

  • Placing a barrier between the noise source and employee (sound walls or curtains)
  • Choosing low-noise tools and machinery
  • Maintaining and lubricating machinery and equipment (oil bearings)
  • Enclosing or isolating the noise source.

Administrative controls are changes in the workplace or schedule that reduce or eliminate the worker’s exposure to noise. Examples of administrative controls are:

  • Operating noisy machines during shifts when fewer people are exposed
  • Limiting the amount of time a person spends at a noise source
  • Providing quiet areas where workers can gain relief from hazardous noise sources.

Controlling exposure to noise through distance parameters is an effective yet simple and inexpensive administrative control. Specifically, for every doubling of the distance between the source of noise and the worker, the noise is decreased by 6 dBA.

Proper Selection and Use of Hearing Protection

Groundwater professionals working at drilling sites should wear a hearing protective device (29 CFR 1926.52).

There are many different types of hearing protection and each type is designed for certain noise conditions. But it must be stressed: Unless workers wear them properly and wear them all the time in high noise areas, the devices will not be effective.

When selecting and wearing protective gear, workers should consider the jobsite noise level, communication needs, convenience, comfort, hygiene, noise reduction afforded by the hearing protective device, and hearing ability.

Each type of hearing protection has manufacturer’s directions for use and maintenance. It is critical to follow these directions and replace or fix the devices when they appear worn, dirty, or broken.

Workers should always wear hearing protection to protect themselves from high noise exposures, both on the worksite and at home.

Regular Hearing Screenings

If workers are routinely exposed to hazardous levels of noise, yearly hearing tests should be provided to monitor their hearing loss over time.

These hearing tests can detect small shifts in hearing ability that have taken place since previous tests. When changes in hearing ability are detected, a retest is common to determine whether the change is permanent or temporary.

Hearing loss can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, so make sure you and all employees take steps that can help combat it.

You may have hearing loss if:

  • You have a hard time hearing people in groups or meetings
  • You have trouble hearing people if there is background noise
  • People sound as if they are mumbling
  • You must ask people to repeat what they say
  • You have trouble understanding others on the phone
  • You have ringing or noises in one or both ears
  • You have trouble hearing back-up alarms or a cellphone ringing.

Safety Products in the NGWA Bookstore
Find NGWA safety products in NGWA’s Bookstore. Included is the Employee Safety Manual, second edition, in a size convenient for storing in vehicles. NGWA members receive a discount upon purchase. Among the sections are those covering jobsite safety and confined spaces, fire on a rig, electrical safety, safe use of hand tools, and more. NGWA members receive a discount upon purchase.

Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.