Years ago, when I worked in a window and door factory, I saw a lot of employees who didn't bother putting in their ear plugs or ear muffs if they just had to use the circular saw for two or three quick cuts. We had this one older employee who used to catch these guys not using ear plugs and would take them aside. "Don't hurry, just do it right," he'd tell them. "The time it takes to do your job safely is the time it takes to do your job." It didn't matter whether we'd been there for a few weeks or a few years, if he'd catch any of us doing it, he'd remind us not to put our hearing at risk.

Noise Exposure: A Serious Hazard

These days, standards and compliance issues require managers to consistently remind workers of their responsibility to be safe on the job. Naturally, all of us want to be successful in our work. We want to stand out by being productive, so it's tempting to do whatever we can to streamline our operations and get the project done more efficiently so we can move on to the next assignment.

That desire for efficiency can tempt any employee into rushing through a job and cutting corners, particularly when they think that putting on protective gear for short tasks isn't worth the time it takes. But when it comes to hearing protection, the damage done to eardrums by neglecting to use hearing protection carries big consequences (read more in The Effects of Noise on the Body: Why Everyone Needs Hearing Protection). Workers may not understand that several short periods of unprotected work leads to cumulative, and often permanent, damage.

Our hearing is really miraculous when you think about it. It all happens because the eardrum, the ossicles, and the inner ear work in concert to transmit sound waves to the brain. One of the important players in all this are the hair cells that carry vibrations. Those hair cells are so delicate that it's no surprise excessive noise exposure damages them, often resulting in both hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing of the ears). Hazardous noise exposure often occurs on the job, so preventing hearing loss requires diligence and sensitivity to situations where hearing can be put at risk.

According to the Mayo Clinic, hearing loss prevention really just consists of taking steps to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. The Clinic advises that persons protect ears in the workplace with specially designed earmuffs that resemble headphones. These devices can protect your ears by dissipating noise energy and bringing most loud sounds down to an acceptable level by the time they reach the eardrum. Pre-formed foam or custom-molded earplugs made of plastic or rubber can also help protect your ears from damaging noise.

Noise Standards

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Noise standard (29 CFR 1910.95) requires employers to have a hearing conservation program in place if workers are exposed to a time-weighted average (TWA) noise level of 85 decibels (dBA) or higher over an 8-hour work shift. Eighty-five decibels may seem like a lot of noise, but it doesn't take a lot of machinery to reach a level that high.

Noise levels above 105dB endured for more than 15 minutes each week can damage your hearing. Lower levels, such as between 80dB and 90dB, can also cause permanent damage if you're exposed to them for hours every day (learn more in Noise: The Safety Hazard 10 Million Workers are Exposed to Every Year).

To get a sense of what those numbers mean, here are some examples of typical noise levels:

  • Normal conversation: 60-65dB
  • A busy street: 75-85dB
  • Lawn mower/heavy traffic: 85dB
  • Forklift truck: 90dB
  • Hand drill: 98dB
  • Motorbikes: 100dB
  • Cinema: some films regularly top 100dB during big action scenes
  • Disco/nightclub/car horn: 110dB
  • MP3 player on loud: 112dB
  • Chainsaw: 115-120dB
  • Rock concert/ambulance siren: 120dB

Warning Signs

Workers should be alert to some of the signs that they may have suffered hearing damage:

  • Ringing or buzzing (tinnitus) in your ears after exposure to noise
  • Hearing people talking but having difficulty understanding them after exposure to noise
  • Experiencing a "fullness" feeling in your ears after leaving a noisy area

Regular testing of your hearing can provide early detection of hearing loss. Knowing you've lost some hearing means you're in a position to take steps to prevent further hearing loss. Wearing hearing protectors and taking breaks from the noisy environment during loud noise exposure activities can also protect your ears.

Making Time for Safety

Remember: One-third of permanent hearing loss is preventable with proper hearing loss prevention strategies. It is always worth the time to protect yourself properly against any workplace hazard. Your health will benefit in the long run.