Sirens, alarms, engine pumps, rotary and chain saws, ventilation fans—firefighters are exposed to these and other sources of high noise levels while on the job and are at risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), according to NIOSH’s latest Workplace Solutions publication. The publication discusses a study of two fire departments that showed that firefighters “viewed NIHL as an unavoidable part of the job and a smaller risk compared with other hazards.” Further, “they believed [hearing protection devices] interfered with their ability to communicate during emergency operations, interfered with other required safety equipment, and were generally forgotten when gearing up.” The document also includes a summary of noise level measurements from fire department surveys as well as brief summaries of NIOSH’s investigations related to firefighters’ exposure to noise and other relevant studies.
The NIOSH recommended exposure limit (REL) for noise is 85 A-weighted decibels (dBA) as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) using a 3-dB exchange rate. OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) for noise is 90 dBA, and the action level is 85 dBA, both as an 8-hour TWA using a 5-dB exchange rate. A 2012 study mentioned in the publication found that NIOSH’s REL was exceeded in less than one hour for certain firefighting tasks, such as the use of saws and pneumatic chisels. According to NIOSH, noise exposure limits need to be adjusted for firefighters since they commonly work 24-hour shifts with 48 hours off.
NIOSH provides the following recommendations for fire department hearing loss prevention programs:
- engineering and administrative controls to limit firefighters’ overall exposure to noise from equipment or in the work environment
- training about harmful noise levels from various tasks and equipment, the effects of noise exposure, and hearing loss
- training about appropriate hearing protection devices, especially electronic devices designed specifically for firefighters
- individualized training on the proper use of hearing protection devices using commercially available fit-test systems