According to OSHA, every year some 22 million U.S. employees are exposed to potentially damaging sound levels at work. Concerns about noise-induced hearing loss are routinely addressed – or should be addressed – during workplace Safety training sessions. However, noise-related Safety risks go beyond hearing loss.
Noise itself is a serious Health and Safety issue. Yet, are sound levels ever considered as possible contributing factors during workplace accident and injury investigations?
Loud sound invades the body via unprotected ears. Stress hormones begin to flow. Blood pressures rise. As a stressor, chronic loud sound exposures could even contribute over time to issues like heart disease, especially if such exposures are coupled with other unhealthy behaviors.
Loud sound spoils one’s good humor. People become tense, anxious and impatient. In already dangerous work situations, this is a bad set-up for thinking clearly, communicating effectively, making decisions and assessing risk. The desire to “just get out of there” can easily lead to hurried conclusions and responses, mistakes and physical injuries.
The popular expression “I can’t hear myself think in here,” speaks to this. It becomes almost impossible to maintain attention levels during complex jobs or to follow conversations or to hear alarms in heavily noise-polluted environments. The brain is side-tracked. Accidents are all too often the results of verbal misunderstandings and of the inability to concentrate. Indeed, workers in loud places are more prone to injuries.
Although jobs can be physically and mentally tiring enough, loud sound seriously complicates matters. It over-taxes and over-stimulates the brain, which responds by switching into some type of slo-mo self-protection mode. Then, as initial surges of stress hormones cannot be sustained, fatigue sets in. Concentration weakens, vigilance and focus fade.
Such negative responses to loud sound levels make sense. However, lower but constant, monotonous or rhythmic background noise also has a sedating, lulling effect. Low level droning, humming, stamping or hissing also contribute greatly to worker fatigue.
People who are stressed, distracted and tired are no longer reliable and productive workers. They are no longer focused on their own workplace Safety, so how should they be focused on the Safety of others, of their teams?
Maybe they do not manage and secure their work site anymore. Maybe that much-needed “good housekeeping” is no longer consistently done? Maybe they let stuff lie and stand around for others to trip and fall over. This is how noise distractions contribute to “accidental” OSHA-reportable injuries that could be easily avoided.
The first actions recommended in the Hierarchy of Noise Controls is the elimination of offensive noise sources and the overall reduction of sound levels. The technology for isolating and muffling sounds is readily available. Older machinery and power tools can be replaced with noise-abated versions. Yet, noise-abated does not necessarily mean ear-safe. Therefore, it is important to know the dB output of any equipment.
Well-fitted and correctly applied PPE, such as earplugs and ear muffs, figures last on the noise-control pyramid. However, hearing protection shields the ears immediately from ear-and-nerve damaging sound levels. It also bars excess noise from invading the body through unprotected ears and so prevents a cascade of health and safety risks that are to no one’s advantage. Therefore, lowering workplace noise levels in any way possible is definitely a sound decision — for the employees and for the company!
To learn about ears and hearing, please see my book on hearing loss: What Did You Say? An Unexpected Journey into the World of Hearing Loss, now in its second updated edition. Sharing my story and what I had to learn the hard way about hearing loss.