Every year, about 30 million people in the United States are occupationally exposed to hazardous noise. Noise-related hearing loss has been listed as one of the most prevalent occupational health concerns for more than 25 years. Since 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that nearly 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss. In 2009 alone, BLS reported more than 21,000 hearing loss cases.

Penalties for violations of OSHA’s 29 CFR 1910.95 Occupational Noise Exposure Standard totaled $1,558,661 across all industries during the period October 2014 through September 2015.

The manufacturing sector took the top two spots for largest amount of citations and penalties, followed by administrative and support and waste management and remediation services; wholesale trade; construction; transportation and warehousing; agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting; public administration; arts, entertainment and recreation; retail trade; information; other services (except public administration); educational services; professional, scientific and technical Services; real estate and rental and leasing; and mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction.

At the top of the most cited industries was the fabricated metal product manufacturing group where 73 inspections resulted in 149 citations and $607,726 in fines issued. Wood product manufacturing followed with 65 inspections generating 102 citations and $147,303 in penalties. Next was plastics and rubber products manufacturing, which had a total of 31 inspections, 59 citations and $90,986 in fines. Rounding out the remaining top ten industries were: nonmetallic mineral product manufacturing (21 inspections; 49 citations; $58,550 penalties); primary metal manufacturing (20 inspections; 44 citations; $76,238 penalties); administrative and support services (15 inspections; 32 citations; $51,588 penalties); transportation equipment manufacturing (18 inspections, 30 citations, $40,588 penalties); food manufacturing (18 inspections, 28 citations, $54,955 penalties); machinery manufacturing (14 inspections, 24 citations, $34,363 penalties); and merchant wholesalers, durable goods (15 inspections, 23 citations, $32,810 penalties).

Prevent hearing loss

According to the BLS, occupational hearing loss is the most commonly recorded occupational illness in manufacturing (17,700 cases out of 59,100 cases).

OSHA says noise controls are the first line of defense against excessive noise exposure. Administrative controls and PPE are also alternatives. With the reduction of even a few decibels, the hazard to hearing is reduced, communication is improved, and noise-related annoyance is reduced.

Engineering controls include:

• Choosing low-noise tools and machinery.

• Maintaining and lubricate machinery and equipment (e.g., oil bearings).

• Placing a barrier between the noise source and employee (e.g., sound walls or curtains).

• Enclosing or isolating the noise source.

Administrative controls are changes in the workplace that reduce or eliminate worker exposure to noise. Examples include:

• Operating noisy machines during shifts when fewer people are exposed.

• Limiting the amount of time a person spends at a noise source.

• Providing quiet areas where workers can get relief from hazardous noise sources.

• Restricting worker presence to a suitable distance away from noisy equipment.

Hearing protection devices (HPDs), such as earmuffs and plugs, are considered an acceptable option to control exposures to noise and are often used during the time necessary to implement engineering or administrative controls, when such controls are not feasible, or when worker’s hearing tests indicate significant hearing damage.

Hearing conservation program

Employers in general industry must implement a hearing conservation program whenever worker noise exposure is equal to or greater than 85 dBA for an 8-hour exposure. Employers in the construction industry need to put a program in place when exposures exceed 90 dBA for an 8-hour exposure.