This is an important question, as hearing must be protected every single time you’re exposed to hazardous noise when at work (and even at home) in order to best preserve your hearing.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has put regulations in place for employers to mitigate injury and stay in compliance when occupational hazardous noise is present, protecting workers from potential short- and long-term damage of hazardous noise on the ears.
And if these regulations aren’t followed, violation fines (in addition to the direct and indirect costs of injury) can get pricey. In 2015, a company was charged $53,100 for violating OSHA’s hearing requirements due to “willful violation for lack of feasible administrative or engineering controls,” among other items – an expensive lesson in making sure your workers are properly protected.
Here’s the most relevant information regarding OSHA’s hearing protection requirements.
Occupational noise exposure requirements
Noise controls are the first line of defense against excessive noise exposure that work to eliminate or minimize any risk to hearing. The OSHA standard 1910.95(b)(1) states when employees are subjected to sound exceeding 85 decibels (dB), feasible administrative or engineering controls should be utilized. If such controls fail to reduce sound levels, personal protective equipment (hearing protection) should be provided and used to reduce sound levels within the levels of the table (more on that below).
Even a reduction of a few decibels can reduce risk and noise-related annoyance and improve communication. There are several ways to do this:
Engineering controls involve modifying or replacing equipment or making related physical changes at the noise source or along the transmission path to reduce the noise level at the worker's ear. Examples of inexpensive, effective engineering controls include:
- Choose low-noise tools and machinery
- Maintain and lubricate machinery and equipment (ex: oil bearings)
- Place a barrier between the noise source and employee (ex: sound walls or curtains)
- Enclose or isolate the noise source
Administrative controls are changes in the workplace or schedule that reduce or eliminate a worker's exposure to noise. Examples include:
- Operate noisy machines during shifts when fewer people are exposed
- Limit the amount of time a person spends at a noise source
- Provide quiet areas where workers can gain relief from hazardous noise sources
- Control noise exposure through distance
- This is often 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
Hearing protection devices (HPDs), such as earmuffs and earplugs, are considered an acceptable option to control exposures to noise and are generally used during the time necessary to implement engineering or administrative controls, when noise controls are not feasible, or when a worker's hearing tests indicate significant hearing damage.
For hearing protection requirements, the OSHA regulation [29 CFR 1910.95(i)(1)] states that:
Employers shall make hearing protectors available to all employees exposed to an eight-hour time-weighted average of 85 decibels or greater at no cost to the employees. Hearing protectors shall be replaced as necessary.
In other words, if noise exposure is at or above 85 decibels averaged over eight working hours, or an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA), hearing protection is required. Additional regulations straight from OSHA that are good to note under 1910.95(i) are:
- Employees shall be given the opportunity to select their hearing protectors from a variety of suitable hearing protectors provided by the employer
- The employer shall provide training in the use and care of all hearing protectors provided to employees
- The employer shall ensure proper initial fitting and supervise the correct use of all hearing protectors
If you’re not sure how to apply these regulations, OSHA has thought of that, too. When hearing protection is required as mentioned above, OSHA also requires employers to implement a hearing conservation program.
Hearing conservation program
Along with hearing protection, hearing conservation programs must be implemented by employers in general industry whenever worker noise exposure is equal to or greater than 85 dBA for an eight-hour exposure or in the construction industry when exposures exceed 90 dBA for an eight-hour exposure.
The goal of these programs is to prevent initial occupational hearing loss, preserve and protect remaining hearing, and equip workers with the knowledge and hearing protection devices necessary to safeguard themselves.
Statewide hearing protection regulations
Note that there are 28 OSHA-approved State Plans, which operate statewide occupational safety and health programs. State Plans are required to have standards and enforcement programs that are at least as effective as OSHA's and may have different or more stringent requirements.
HexArmor® can help
There are several factors to consider when choosing which earplug or earmuff technology is right for you, which is why HexArmor® offers a variety of hearing safety information as well as varying levels of hearing protection so you can be properly protected for your specific application and environment.