Several occupations and professional industries -- including construction, manufacturing, and mining -- are subject to noise as a consistent part of the working environment. But how much noise is too much in the workplace? What should be considered an unreasonable amount of exposure to noise for an extended period of time in the workplace?
Ambient noise is all around us. Most workplaces are moderately noisy with the buzz of conversation, office equipment, and ringing phones; this type of noise typically registers at around 60 decibels (dB). With each decibel, the noise levels increase exponentially, so 70 dB is actually ten times louder than common office noise.
The Facts About Noise Pollution
We are all so accustomed to constant background noise that periods of silence can actually make us uncomfortable. There are even ambient noise apps and machines available to fill in the empty silence.
In most urban settings, ambient workplace noise could include traffic, car horns, loud music and/or talking. As you can imagine, the more congested an area is, the louder the noise level will be. In a city where thousands of people are all having different conversations at the same time, the decibel level averages around 90 dB.
Prolonged exposure to loud noises can damage your hearing, sometimes permanently. The CDC reports that in the United States alone, nearly 50 million people have experienced some form of tinnitus or ringing in the ears. There is currently no cure for tinnitus, but there are several effective ways to manage the discomfort.
Noise in the Workplace
In the workplace, wearing earplugs or earmuffs in areas with noise levels consistently above 85 dBA and/or limiting the amount of time you’re exposed to excessive noise helps prevent hearing damage or loss. Proper training and knowledge of safety requirements is key to recognizing potential hazards and preventing work-related injuries.
According to OHSA, employers are required to have a hearing conservation program in place if employees are exposed to an average of 85 dBA of noise or higher during an eight-hour shift. To give an idea of how much noise that is, consider that a regular food blender is about 88 dBA. Imagine listening to your NutriBullet constantly whirring in your ear for eight hours every day while you are expected to be productive.
Employers have a responsibility to take as much precaution as possible to protect employees from foreseeable harm. However, workplace noise is unavoidable at times. Hearing PPE (personal protection equipment) is essential in these cases. Employer-supplied hearing protection is mandated by OHSA. If you are expected to work in an excessively noisy environment on a regular basis, your employer is expected to provide you with appropriate hearing protection.
Prolonged exposure to excessive occupational noise can cause permanent hearing damage or hearing loss. Employees do accept a reasonable amount of responsibility when agreeing to work in a setting with excessive noise. By wearing earplugs or earmuffs, they contribute to their own safety while staying compliant with safety regulations.
Even a small change in the decibel level can cause damage to a person’s hearing. Professionals working in areas with dangerously high noise levels must limit the time spent in the immediate area. The higher the decibel level, the less time a worker can spend in the area.
Companies are required by law to comply with safety standards and regulations or face penalties. Safety audits are often performed to ensure that employers are taking proper safety precautions to protect their employees from foreseeable harm.
How Much Noise Is Too Much?
The definition of “too much noise” will vary from person to person. We are exposed to some level of noise constantly, all day every day. Nature sounds like rustling leaves and water running through a creek register at 40 decibels. Even breathing and the literal sound of a pin dropping is 10 decibels.
While some may experience discomfort and even detriment from long periods of “regular” everyday noise, exposure to excessive levels of noise consistently can cause permanent damage. In those situations, it is critical to take every safety precaution available to avoid injury.