Noise generally is not the first issue to spring to mind when the topic of designing an ergonomic workplace is being discussed. However, excessive noise can be a serious environmental hazard in the workplace, and is often identified as such in ergonomic assessments. Excessive noise is also an issue that is addressed by OSHA health and safety standards, which specifies excessive noise exposure as being at or above an 8-hour time weighted average of 85 decibels as an ergonomic hazard. So just how serious is excessive noise in terms of workplace health and safety?
Noise related hearing loss, according to OSHA, has been listed as one of the most prevalent occupational health concerns in the U.S. for more than 25 years, and more than 30 million workers are exposed to hazardous levels of noise in the workplace. Over the last decade nearly 125,000 workers have experienced significant, permanent hearing loss due to these hazards. High levels of noise in the workplace, according to OSHA, can also cause other health and safety issues, creating physical and psychological stress, reducing productivity, interfering with communication and concentration, and contributing to workplace accidents and injuries by making warning signals difficult to hear.
What that means is that noise is an issue that should certainly be on the radar of employers as they work to create and maintain a safe, healthy, ergonomic workplace for their employees, and an evaluation of noise levels in the workplace should be a component of an effective workplace ergonomic assessment. Should those levels be found to be hazardous according to OSHA health and safety standards, a number of steps can be taken to reduce the risk to workers presented by excessive noise.
OSHA states that noise controls are the first line of defense against excessive noise exposure. The agency recommends engineering controls (such as choosing low noise tools and machinery), keeping equipment well-maintained and lubricated to reduce clatter or squeals, and placing noise barriers between noise sources and employees. OSHA also outlines administrative controls that can reduce or eliminate noise exposure, including operating noisy machinery during shifts when fewer employees are present, limiting the amount of time each person spends near a noise source, providing quiet areas for exposed employees to rest and recover, and keeping employees at a safe distance from noise sources whenever possible.
If noise in the workplace cannot be reduced to levels that comply with OSHA safety standards via these measures, hearing protection devices must be supplied and a hearing conservation program must be implemented. These programs include workplace noise sampling to identify at-risk employees, informing those identified workers of the hazards and providing them or their representatives the opportunity to observe noise measurements. A worker hearing test program must be put into place, and training on the hazards of noise exposure and the effective use of hearing protection devices must be provided.
If your company is working with a workplace health and safety expert to create an ergonomic workplace, they should be able to help you identify and implement effective engineering and/or administrative controls to help protect your workers from excessive noise exposure. If those measures are not sufficient in terms of worker safety, your health and safety professional should be able to assist you in developing an OSHA compliant hearing conservation program to address remaining noise hazards. Taking these measures is, of course, important in terms of regulatory compliance, but protecting your employees from noise hazards will also benefit your business in terms of fewer injuries, better employee retention, reduced workplace stress, and increased productivity.