OSHA Hearing Regulations Occupational Noise Exposure
Noise, or unwanted sound, is one of the most pervasive occupational health problems. It is a byproduct of many industrial processes. Sound consists of pressure changes in a medium (usually air), caused by vibration or turbulence. These pressure changes produce waves emanating away from the turbulent or vibrating source. Exposure to high levels of noise causes hearing loss and may cause other harmful health effects as well. The extent of damage depends primarily on the intensity of the noise and the duration of the exposure. Noise-induced hearing loss can be temporary or permanent. Temporary hearing loss results from short-term exposures to noise, with normal hearing returning after a period of rest. Generally, prolonged exposure to high noise levels over a period of time gradually causes permanent damage.
OSHA’s hearing conservation program is designed to protect workers with significant occupational noise exposures from suffering material hearing impairment even if they are subject to such noise exposures over their entire working lifetimes.
The following summarizes the required component of OSHA’s hearing conservation program.**
The hearing conservation program requires employers to monitor noise exposure levels in a manner that will accurately identify employees who are exposed to noise at or above 85 decibels (dB) averaged over 8 working hours, or an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA.) That is, employers must monitor all employees whose noise exposure is equivalent to or greater than a noise exposure received in 8 hours where the noise level is constantly 85 dB. The exposure measurement must include all continuous, intermittent, and impulsive noise within an 80 dB to 130 dB range and must be taken during a typical work situation. This requirement is performance-oriented since it allows employers to choose the monitoring method that best suits each individual situation. Monitoring should be repeated when changes in production, process, or controls increase noise exposure. Such changes may mean that additional employees need to be monitored and/or their hearing protectors may no longer provide adequate attenuation.
Under this program, employees are entitled to observe monitoring procedures and they must be notified of the results of exposure monitoring. The method used to notify employees is left to the discretion of the employers. Instruments used for monitoring employee exposures must be carefully checked or calibrated to ensure that the measurements are accurate. Calibration procedures are unique to specific instruments. Employers have the duty to ensure that the measuring instruments are properly calibrated. They may find it useful to follow the manufacturer’s instruction to determine when and how extensively to calibrate.
Audiometric testing not only monitors the sharpness and acuity of an employee’s hearing over time, but also provides an opportunity for employers to educate employees about their hearing and the need to protect it.
The employer shall establish and maintain an audiometric testing program. The important elements of an audiometric testing program include baseline audiograms, annual audiograms, training, and follow up procedures. Audiometric testing must be made available at no cost to all employees who are exposed to an action level of 85 dB or above, measured as an 8-hour TWA.
The audiometric testing program follow up should indicate whether the employer’s hearing conservation program is preventing hearing loss. A licensed or certified audiologist (specialist dealing with an individual having impaired hearing), an otolaryngologist (physician specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the ear, nose, and throat), or a physician must be responsible for the program. Both professionals and trained technicians may conduct audiometric testing. The professional in charge of the program does not have to be present when a qualified technician conducts tests, however. The professional’s responsibilities include overseeing the program and the work of the technicians, reviewing problem audiograms, and determining whether referral is necessary.
The employee needs a referral for further testing when test results are questionable or when problems of a medical nature are suspected. If additional testing is necessary or if the employer suspects a medical pathology of the ear is caused or aggravated by the wearing of hearing protectors, the employee shall be referred for a clinical audiological evaluation or ontological exam, as appropriate. There are two types of audiograms required in the hearing conservation program: baseline and annual audiograms.
The baseline audiogram is the reference audiogram against which future audiograms are compared. Baseline audiograms must be provided within 6 months of an employee’s first exposure at or above an 8-hour TWA of 85 dB. An exception is the use of mobile test vans to obtain audiograms. In these instances, baseline audiograms must be completed within 1 year after an employee’s first exposure to workplace noise at or above a TWA of 85 dB. Employees, however, must be fitted with, issued, and required to wear hearing protectors for any period exceeding 6 months after their first exposure until the baseline audiogram is obtained.
Baseline audiograms taken before the effective date of the hearing conservation program (April 7, 1983) are acceptable baselines if the professional supervisor determines that the audiogram is valid. Employees should not be exposed to workplace noise for 14 hours preceding the baseline test; however, appropriate hearing protectors can serve as a substitute for this requirement and can be worn during this time period.
Annual audiograms must be conducted within 1 year of the baseline. It is important to test hearing on an annual basis to identify deterioration in hearing ability so that protective follow
up measures can be initiated before hearing loss progresses. Annual audiograms must be routinely compared to baseline audiograms to determine whether the audiogram is valid and to determine whether the employee has lost hearing ability–i.e., if a standard threshold shift (STS) has occurred. STS is an average shift in either ear of 10 dB or more at 2,000, 3,000, and 4,000 hertz. An averaging method of determining STS was chosen because it diminished
the number of persons falsely identified as having STS and who are later shown not to have had a change in hearing ability. Additionally, the method is sensitive enough to identify meaningful shifts in hearing early on.
If an STS is identified, employees must be fitted or refitted with adequate hearing protectors, shown how to use them, and required to wear them. Employees must be notified within 21 days from the time the determination is made that their audiometric test results showed an STS. Some employees with an STS may need to be referred for further testing if the professional determines that their test results are questionable or if they have an ear problem of a medical nature that is thought to be caused or aggravated by wearing hearing protectors. If the suspected medical problem is not thought to be related to wearing hearing protection, employees must be informed that they should see a physician. If subsequent audiometric tests show that the STS identified on a previous audiogram is not persistent, employees whose exposure to noise is less than a TWA of 90 dB may discontinue wearing hearing protectors.
An annual audiogram may be substituted for the original baseline audiogram if the professional supervising the program determines that the employee’s STS is persistent. The original baseline audiogram, however, must be retained for the length of the employee’s employment. This substitution will ensure that the same shift is not repeatedly identified. The professional also may decide to revise the baseline audiogram if an improvement in hearing occurs. This will ensure that the baseline reflects actual hearing thresholds to the extent possible. Audiometric tests must be conducted in a room meeting specific background levels and with calibrated audiometers that meet American National Standard Institute (ANSI) specifications of SC-1 969.
Hearing protectors must be available to all workers exposed to 8-hour TWA noise levels of 85 dB or above. This requirement will ensure that employees have access to protectors before they experience a loss in hearing. Hearing protectors must be worn by (1) employees for any period exceeding 6 months from the time they are first exposed to 8-hour TWA noise levels of 85 dB or above until they receive their baseline audiograms in situations where baseline audiograms are delayed because it is inconvenient for mobile test vans to visit the workplace more than once a year; (2) employees who have incurred standard threshold shifts since these workers have demonstrated that they are susceptible to noise;
and (3) employees exposed over the permissible exposure limit of 90 dB over an 8-hour TWA.
Employees should decide, with the help of a person who is trained in fitting hearing protectors, which size and type protector is most suitable for their working environment. The protector
selected should be comfortable to wear and offer sufficient attenuation to prevent hearing loss. Hearing protectors must adequately reduce the severity of the noise level for each employee’s work environment. The employer must reevaluate the suitability of the employee’s present protector whenever there is a change in working conditions that may cause the hearing protector being used to be inadequate. If workplace noise levels increase, employees must be given more effective protectors. The protector must reduce employee exposures to at least 90 dB and to
85 dB when an STS already has occurred in the worker’s hearing. Employees must be shown how to use and care for their protectors and must be supervised on the job to ensure that they continue to wear them correctly.
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