What is High Noise in the Workplace and Why is it a Hazard?

Yellow ear protection sitting on rusty workbench that leads to high workplace noise hazards.

Excessive noise at work can be a real issue for many. Airports, factories, construction sites, and nurseries are just a few common examples of work environments with high levels of noise. But anyone from Formula One drivers to orchestral musicians to bartenders to dentists can be negatively affected by noise while doing their job. And exposure to loud noises can be damaging not only to one’s hearing but also to their overall health. Often, the louder the work environment, the more potentially hazardous it is for its employees.

How Sound Is Measured

Sound is measured in decibels (dB), and most of the sounds we hear daily range from 10 to 80 dB. For example, regular human breathing is around 10 dB, while somebody whispering nearby is about 30 dB. A regular conversation, a typical office setting, or an air conditioner are about 60-65 dB. An alarm clock, a subway train, and city traffic fall somewhere between 80-90 dB. Louder sounds such as ambulance sirens or a full symphony orchestra measure in at around 120 dB. Less common sounds—like a jet taking off or a shotgun blast—are around 130-140 dB.

When is Sound Damaging to the Human Ear?

Anything over 120 dB can be quite damaging to the human ear, and sudden noises can cause immediate (and sometimes irreparable) damage. Examples of this might be sporadic bangs or explosions from heavy machinery or equipment in a factory, an airplane taking off close by, excessive microphone feedback in a music studio, and so on.

Prolonged Exposure to Noise Can be Harmful

Prolonged exposure to any noise above 70 dB can cause harm as well. Being exposed to continuous high-noise levels for extended periods of time may result in a gradual deterioration of one’s hearing without any noticeable pain or discomfort. And this makes certain high-noise workplaces even more hazardous—because, as you go about your day, you may not even be aware of the damage being done by the surrounding noise. 

How to Measure Noise Levels

Most businesses with high noise levels will have some sort of noise-measuring system in place to ensure employee safety and comply with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines.

While the sound is measured in decibels, how the human ear responds to sound is measured in what’s known as “A-weighted decibels” (or dBA). Traditional instruments to measure both dB and dBA are a sound level meter (SLM) and a noise dosimeter. These devices are usually hand-held and portable, and they’re commonplace in settings such as industrial plants, construction sites, oil rigs, mines, etc. Nowadays, there are also plenty of noise-measuring apps (including one from NIOSH) that you can download onto your phone or tablet.

How to Protect You Hearing in a High-Noise Environment

Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as earplugs and earmuffs are often vital in loud workplaces. Various noise-cancellation and noise-reduction headsets are also becoming an increasingly essential part of many businesses today. The benefit of these—in terms of measuring noise—is that they usually come with a noise reduction rating (aka an NRR). NRRs help you gauge noise exposure levels and how much protection a device will provide (measured in dB and dBA). However, all devices have their own unique rating and functionality, and OSHA and NIOSH have specific recommendations regarding NRRs too. So, it’s essential that both employers and employees research and familiarize themselves with the equipment they use.

Recognizing the Warning Signs of Too Much Noise

The human ear provides two warning signs for overexposure to noise. One is tinnitus, commonly known as ringing in the ears. The other is temporary threshold shift (aka TTS, or auditory fatigue). Both are measured in dB. Tinnitus usually doesn’t lead to serious health problems but can be permanent. TTS results in hearing loss (making sounds muffled or inaudible), but the hearing loss is recovered after a few hours to a couple of days. However, continuous bouts of TTS can lead to permanent damage too.

To ensure employee safety and help prevent hazardous noise levels, it’s important that all employees adhere to NIOSH, OSHA, and their specific workplace’s safety guidelines and regulations. This may include anything from wearing protective equipment to accurately always measuring noise levels to frequent safety checks and training. NIOSH recommends that all worker exposure to noise should be controlled below a level equivalent to 85 dBA for eight hours.

What Are the Effects of Noise Exposure?

Hearing loss and permanent ear damage are not the only dangers of high noise exposure. Depending on the environment, sudden or continuous exposure can also cause headaches, stress, irritability, and fatigue. In some cases, it can lead to depression, insomnia, elevated blood pressure, digestive disorders, and even heart disease.

Loud noise can also make one more susceptible to colds and other minor infections. People’s sensitivity to sound varies, so it’s important that you stay protected and diligent when working in a high-noise environment.

How to Limit Noise Hazards in the Workplace

No two high-noise work environments are ever the same. Moreover, the definition of ‘loud’ generally varies from person to person. Personal protective equipment is often the first line of defense when it comes to a loud workplace. But, overall, there are numerous ways you can reduce and limit noise hazards in your place of work. Know your environment, make sure everyone has the proper equipment, plan ahead, and remain diligent. Do your own research, stay updated on the latest OSHA and NIOSH guidelines, and conduct frequent safety training and noise-level inspections. All this should help guarantee maximum productivity, effective communication, and—most importantly—minimal risk for you and your employees.

Contributing Author: Rick Farrell, President, Plant-Tours.com

Farrell is North America’s foremost expert in improving manufacturing group communication, education, training and group hospitality processes. He has over 40 years of group hospitality experience, most recently serving as President of Plant-Tours.com for the last 18 years. He has provided consulting services with the majority of Fortune 500 industrial corporations improving group communication dynamics of all types in manufacturing environments. 

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