July 12, 2022 / Ryanna Quazi

Tune Out the Noise

In 2016, USA Today published an article about a 55-year-old construction worker, Jeff Ammon, who had worked in the industry for over thirty years. The exposure to damaging noise led Ammon to experience symptoms of hearing loss and hearing sensitivity. Some of these symptoms included extreme pain, ringing, and dizziness. Eventually, it all became too much, and Ammon had to leave his job. USA Today reported that he mainly stays at home in his soundproof basement, hardly venturing out because of the extreme symptoms that he experiences daily.

Ammon is not the only worker in the United States affected by extreme or damaging noise. NIOSH has reported that around 22 million workers are exposed to damaging noise every year. Hearing loss is particularly prevalent in the construction industry, where workers can be exposed to damaging noise from equipment for long periods. According to NIOSH, 51 percent of construction workers have been exposed to hazardous noise and 16 percent of noise-exposed construction workers have hearing loss in both ears.

In addition to the symptoms that Ammon experienced, the long-term health effects of noise exposure include physical and psychological stress. Noise exposure can also impact workers’ cognitive and behavioral functions, such as communication, comprehension skills, and productivity.

Government Efforts

The federal government has standards, resources, and data systems in place to protect workers from exposure to damaging noise.

OSHA has set a noise standard for employers that they must follow to protect their employees’ hearing. Employers must keep noise exposure below 90 decibels for an eight-hour workday to keep workers safe. If the noise exposure in a workplace exceeds 85 decibels, employers must create hearing conservation programs to protect their workers.

OSHA also has resources available for employers with information on how to protect workers from damaging noise. These resources highlight methods such as engineering controls and administrative controls. Engineering controls include placing barriers between the worker and the equipment, choosing low-noise equipment, making sure equipment is up to date and lubricated, and isolating the noise-inducing equipment. Examples of administrative controls include operating equipment when fewer employees are on shift, limiting the time a worker is exposed to damaging noise, and allowing workers to spend time in quiet areas to give their ears a rest.

Other federal agencies are also concerned with worker hearing loss. For example, NIOSH hosts the Occupational Hearing Loss Surveillance Program, which tracks and analyzes data about worker hearing loss across the country. This surveillance helps determine high-risk groups, design interventions, and evaluate those interventions. The program also partners with audiometric companies to collect worker audiograms while protecting the workers’ identities.

Cities such as Minneapolis have taken action to protect workers and customers in the entertainment industry. In 2014, the city passed an ordinance that would provide free earplugs to all employees and customers at certain establishments that serve alcohol.

It is also important to acknowledge the criticisms of these government interventions. One of the major criticisms is that it is sometimes difficult to determine whether a worker’s hearing loss originated from the workplace or from lifestyle choices such as attending rock concerts without any hearing protection. In addition, some stakeholders feel that OSHA’s noise standard is not protective enough and have called for the agency to adopt the NIOSH recommended exposure limit of 85 decibels averaged over an eight-hour workday.

AIHA Resources

Protecting workers and their hearing in all industries is of utmost importance to AIHA. AIHA University has resources such as the sixth edition of The Noise Manual, where members can learn about the strategies to mitigate the effects of noise. AIHA also has a public-facing page on its website dedicated to the issue, where people can learn about the effects of noise and find links to other government resources on the issue. The Synergist has recently published articles about ototoxicants, which are substances that are toxic to the auditory system. Read “The Ear Poisons” and “Ototoxicants and Hearing Impairment” in the digital version of the magazine.

Furthermore, the AIHA Noise Committee is a volunteer group where members talk about the issue, provide education and resources, and identify relevant legislation. If you’re interested in joining the committee, complete this form on the AIHA website.

Ryanna Quazi

Ryanna Quazi is AIHA’s advocacy associate.


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