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Beyond Ear Plugs—Plugging Gaps in your Hearing Safety Net

- October 21, 2016 by Dan Heinen, ASP (View all posts by Dan)

Posting signs reminding team members that ear plugs are required on the site, having boxes of them handy are good first steps toward protecting your employees from hearing damage caused by workplace noise.  But, that’s only a first step.  Hearing loss, workers’ comp claims, and OSHA citations can still occur if you’re not calculating the level noise blasting into your workers’ ears. For this post, I’ll be focusing on how employers can ensure they are providing the right amount of hearing protection for their team. 

What Noise Protections Exist in your Company?

Before I jump into the physics of noise protection, I’d like you to keep the following questions in mind when thinking about your jobsite:

How loud is the noise?

  1. Has the company had noise monitoring done by a qualified professional, using professional instruments?
  2. Do any of my employees experience average noise levels above 85 A-weighted decibels (dBA)—the expression of relative loudness of sounds in air as perceived by the human ear?

Has the company made reasonable attempts to reduce noise levels? Examples include:

  1. Regulated air pressure at hand-held air nozzles to below 30 pounds per square inch (psi)
  2. Proper maintenance on equipment (i.e. pumps, motors, belts, etc.)
  3. Isolation of noise sources from employee workstations

Are the hearing protectors rated to provide the protection your employees need?

  1. What is the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) for the protectors the company is currently using?
  2. Do the correct managers and team leaders know how to apply the NRR to the noise environment in each of the facilities?

If workers’ exposures are above the legal limit (85 dBA), does the company have a written Hearing Conservation Program that describes how employees are protected from noise?

  1. How is the company meeting the Training requirements?
  2. Are affected employees provided hearing tests when they begin employment?
  3. Are affected employees provided hearing tests annually?

Calculating Noise Levels to Invest in PPE

To determine how much protection your employees are getting from your hearing protectors, take a look at the OSHA guidance.

According to OSHA’s formula,  when calculating noise levels in dBA, subtract 7 from the NRR, and then subtract that value from the measured noise level—and presto!  The final number is the level employees are protected to.

To make the calculation yourself, you’ll need the following:

  • An employee’s average noise exposure (Time Weighted Average) in dBA
  • The NRR from the hearing protector package

A sample calculation looks like this:

  • Assume the employees’ average noise exposure is 98 dBA
  • The NRR from the hearing protector package is 23
  • OSHA says to subtract 7 (safety factor) from the hearing rotector NRR, which equals 16
    • Note: OSHA Strongly Recommends that you cut that value by half again.
    • Now we have 8
  • Then subtract 8 from 98 dBA and we end up with the employee being exposed to 90 dBA when they’re properly wearing the hearing protector.

OSHA regulations say that Hearing Protectors must protect employees’ hearing to 90 dBA, or lower.  However, if that employee has suffered a noise induced hearing loss (a Standard Threshold Shift, or STS) then the employee must be provided protection to 85 dBA or lower.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with one simple, yet powerful final tip: Doubling up on hearing protection will give team members—more protection.  By follow up proper fitting spongy ear plugs with ear muffs,  you can add 5 dBA of protection to your calculation.  In the above example, doubling up with earmuffs would extend employee protection down to 85 dBA.

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