White-Wilson Medical Center

What Are The Laws For On-The-Job Exposure?

Habitual exposure to noise above 85 dB will cause a gradual hearing loss in a significant number of individuals, and louder noises will accelerate this damage.

For unprotected ears, the allowed exposure time decreases by one-half for each 5 dB increase in the average noise level. For instance, exposure is limited to 8 hours at 90 dB, 4 hours at 95 dB, and 2 hours at 100 dB

The highest permissible noise exposure for the unprotected ear is 115 dB for 15 minutes/day. Any noise above 140 dB is not permitted.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in its Hearing Conservation Amendment of 1983, requires hearing conservation programs in noisy work places. This includes a yearly hearing test for the approximately five million workers exposed to an average of 85 dB or more of noise during an 8-hour work day.

Ideally, noisy machinery and work places should be engineered to be more quiet or the worker's time in the noise should be reduced; however, the cost of these actions is often prohibitive. As an alternative, individual hearing protectors are required when noise averages more than 90 dB during an 8-hour day.

When noise measurements indicate that hearing protectors are needed, the employer must offer at least one type of earplug and one type of earmuff without cost to employees. If the yearly hearing tests reveal hearing loss of 10 dB or more in higher pitches in either ear, the worker must be informed and must wear hearing protectors when noise averages more than 85 dB for an 8-hour day.

Larger losses of hearing and/or the possibility of ear disease should result in referral to an ear, nose and throat physician (otolaryngologist).

What Are Hearing Protectors? How Effective Are They?

Hearing protection devices decrease the intensity of sound that reaches the eardrum. They come in two forms: earplugs and earmuffs.

Earplugs are small inserts that fit into the outer ear canal. They must be snugly sealed so the entire circumference of the ear canal is blocked. An improperly fitted, dirty or worn-out plug may not seal and can irritate the ear canal. They are available in a variety of shapes and sizes to fit individual ear canals and can be custom made. For people who have trouble keeping them in their ears, they can be fitted to a headband.

Earmuffs fit over the entire outer ear to form an air seal so the entire circumference of the ear canal is blocked, and they are held in place by an adjustable band. Earmuffs will not seal around eyeglasses or long hair, and the adjustable headband tension must be sufficient to hold earmuffs firmly around the ear.

Properly fitted earplugs or muffs reduce noise 15 to 30 dB. The better earplugs and muffs are approximately equal in sound reductions, although earplugs are better for low frequency noise and earmuffs for high frequency noise.

Simultaneous use of earplugs and muffs usually adds 10 to 15dB more protection than either used alone. Combined use should be considered when noise exceeds 105 dB.

Why Can't I Just Stuff My Ears with Cotton?

Ordinary cotton balls or tissue paper wads stuffed into the ear canals are very poor protectors; they reduce noise only by approximately 7 dB.

What Are the Common Problems of Hearing Protectors?

Studies have shown that one-half of the workers wearing hearing protectors receive one-half or less of the noise reduction potential of their protectors because these devices are not worn continuously while in noise or because they do not fit properly.
A hearing protector that gives an average of 30 dB of noise reduction if worn continuously during an 8-hour work day becomes equivalent to only 9 dB of protection if taken off for one hour in the noise. This is because decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, and there is a 10-fold increase in noise energy for each 10 dB increase. During the hour with unprotected ears, the worker is exposed to 1,000 times more sound energy than if earplugs or muffs had been worn.

In addition, noise exposure is cumulative. So the noise at home or at play must be counted in the total exposure during any one day. A maximum allowable while on-the-job followed by exposure to a noisy lawnmower or loud music will definitely exceed the safe daily limit.

Even if earplugs and/or muffs are worn continuously while in noise, they do little good if there is an incomplete air seal between the hearing protector and the skin. When using hearing protectors, you will hear your own voice as louder and deeper. This is a useful sign that the hearing protectors are properly positioned.

Can I Hear Other People and Machine Problems If I Wear Hearing Protectors?

Just as sunglasses help vision in very bright light, so do hearing protectors enhance speech understanding in very noisy places. Even in a quiet setting, a normal-hearing person wearing hearing protectors should be able to understand a regular conversation.

Hearing protectors do slightly reduce the ability of those with damaged hearing or poor comprehension of language to understand normal conversation. However, it is essential that persons with impaired hearing wear earplugs or muffs to prevent further inner ear damage.

It has been argued that hearing protectors might REDUCE a worker's ability to hear the noises that signify an improperly functioning machine. However, most workers readily adjust to the quieter sounds and can still detect such problems.

What If My Hearing Is Already Damaged? How Can I Tell?

Hearing loss usually develops over a period of several years. Since it is painless and gradual, you might not notice it. What you might notice is a ringing or other sound in your ear (called tinnitus), which could be the result of long-term exposure to noise that has damaged the hearing nerve. Or, you may have trouble understanding what people say; they may seem to be mumbling, especially when you are in a noisy place such as in a crowd or at a party. This could be the beginning of high-frequency hearing loss; a hearing test will detect it.

If you have any of these symptoms, you may have nothing more serious than impacted wax or an ear infection, which might be simply corrected. However, it might be hearing loss from noise. In any case, take no chances with noise—the hearing loss it causes is permanent. If you suspect a hearing loss, schedule an appointment with Dr. Tim Skinner to help diagnose your hearing problem and recommend the best way to manage it. This doctor can diagnose your hearing problem and recommend the best way to manage it.