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Noise Hazards

UE News, June 1998

Noise is one of the most common hazards encountered by U.S. workers. It is estimated that about 10 million U.S. workers are regularly exposed to dangerous noise levels on the job.

This noise can cause damage to the sensitive cells lining the inner parts of the human ear. When loud sounds damage your hearing, your ability to detect high frequency sounds goes first. Initially you won’t notice the effects of this because the sound frequency affected first is 4,000 Hertz, that is, 4,000 cycles per second. This is higher than the ordinary sound frequencies of human speech (which go from about 200 to 3,000 Hertz), so your ability to hear other people’s speech and communicate with them won’t be affected.

But if these loud sounds continue, your hearing will continue to deteriorate. Within a few years your hearing will be damaged at the frequencies below (and above) 4,000 Hertz. Eventually your ability to hear sounds below 3,000 Hertz will be affected. Then you will begin having a hard time hearing what other people are saying to you.

For example, you might not be able to understand a waitress in a noisy restaurant, or hear what someone is saying to you at a noisy party. Perhaps you will have difficulty hearing the doorbell or the phone ringing. since these are usually designed to ring at high frequencies. Also, many consonants such as F, X and S, which have high frequency sounds in them, become hard to distinguish. So you may not be able to tell the difference between the words "fifteen" and "sixteen."


How can you find out about the earliest (4,000 Hertz) hearing losses, the ones that happen before you begin to notice problems hearing others speak? The answer is to have your ears checked by an audiologist. This is a person trained to measure the ability of human ears to hear sounds over a wide range of sound frequencies. When this person gives you an audiological exam, he or she will be able to pick up any hearing loss at 4,000 Hertz long before you notice any loss. (The results of such a test are called an audiogram.)

The next step is to work with your union to get management to quiet down the noise in your shop. You can try to get a provision in your contract guaranteeing free earplugs and earmuffs for those who want to wear them.

Audiograms are costly, but remember if noise levels on your job average 85 decibels or more (on the A scale of a sound level meter) then your employer is required by law to give you an annual audiogram free of cost to you and during working hours. You must also be given a full, confidential report of what the audiogram shows. Also, if the average sound level you are exposed to exceeds 85 decibels, your employer must by law provide (at no cost to you) earplugs or earmuffs, which you have the option of wearing. (Above 90 decibels, the earplugs or earmuffs not only must be provided, they must be worn.) When earplugs or earmuffs are provided by your employer, at any decibel level, they must be fit-tested on you individually by a qualified person.


How do you know if the sound you are exposed to is 85 decibels or more? You need a meter to tell you exactly. And remember the sound must average above 85 decibels or more over an eight-hour workshift. You are legally allowed to be exposed above 85 decibels for a few minutes to a few hours, but over the whole workshift the average must be 85 decibels or below. (As a rule of thumb, if you are in a room where you have to shout at a person two feet away from you in order to be heard, then the sound in the room is about 85 decibels.)

If the sound level averages more than 90 decibels during an 8-hour shift, then your employer is in violation of the federal safety and health law. (Rule of thumb: At 90 decibels you have to shout at a person whose ear is one foot away from you in order to be heard.) Exposures between 85 and 90 decibels are legal, but you are entitled to a free annual audiogram once the levels are 85 or more.

If a sound level meter is needed to measure noise levels, the union health and safety committee or your local officers should ask management to provide one. Sometimes a local COSH group can lend their meter to you, or a local clinic might have one to lend. Remember, though, check the battery on the meter before you begin and check that the meter has been calibrated before the measurement with a sound source of known frequency and loudness. (Also, many people now use so-called sound dosimeters instead of sound level meters. You wear these dosimeters on your lapel, usually, , and they give you your personal average daily dose of sound at the end of the workshift. A dose of 1.0 over an 8-hour shift corresponds to an average daily sound exposure of 90 decibels, and a dose of 0.5 to a daily average of 85 decibels.)


Finally, if you have been exposed to loud noises on the job for many years, say 10 years or more, you may be eligible to receive workers’ compensation payments for partial permanent hearing loss. If you are showing unusual signs of hearing loss as you age (we all lose some hearing with age, but exposed workers lose more and at younger ages), ask your union officers for a referral to a workers’ comp lawyer. Only 10 percent of workers who have suffered a compensable hearing loss on the job ever apply for compensation!

While loss of hearing won’t kill you, it can make communication with family and friends very difficult, if not impossible. For many victims of hearing loss due to noise on the job, this medical condition can lead to withdrawal, depression and even to suicide in some cases. Hearing loss due to noise on the job is irreversible. Once the loss has occurred, you can never recover your old hearing. So take noise on the job seriously, and don’t let job-related hearing loss creep up on you. Almost all work situations can be quieted when the employer is persuaded to do something about noise on the job.

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