Exposure to loud noise, even for short periods of time, can permanently damage your hearing. Whether you are at a sporting event, in a restaurant, or working with power tools, if you have to shout to be heard, the noise level is probably harming your hearing. If you think you are exposed to loud noise on campus, tell your supervisor or manager. Employers are required to have a hearing loss prevention program for workers exposed to loud noise. See WAC 296-817 (PDF) for more information.
Noise sound levels vary and this causes varying amounts of damage to hearing. The image to the right demonstrates typical noise exposures. It is important to understand that noise also depends on distance from the source and this is demonstrated by the image below. A tool that can help you hear the differences in sounds with different sound levels is the NIOSH Noise Meter. It is important to know “How Loud is Too Loud?”. The NIDCD provides an explanation along with a printable bookmark (PDF) on their website as a reminder about damages to hearing that are possible with excessive noise.
More specific descriptions about noise and health effects are available:
Noise Basics (L&I) (PDF)
Noise and Health Effects (OSHA)
Common Power Tool Noise Levels (NIOSH)
Hearing Loss Prevention Program
EH&S oversees the Hearing Loss Prevention Program and Procedures (PDF). Under this program, departments, supervisors, and employees also have responsibilities to protect worker hearing.
Departments must determine if employees are exposed to noise above the legal limit of 90 decibels (dBA) average over the work shift, and if so, institute engineering controls to reduce noise below 90 dBA. Employees who are exposed to noise above 85 dBA average for 8 hours must also be provided with hearing protectors and trained in their use. Initial and annual audiograms (hearing tests) must be provided to employees to monitor for hearing loss.
Supervisors must assure that reports of high noise are investigated. EH&S can assist with noise evaluations. Supervisors must also assure workers properly wear hearing protectors, allow workers to get their audio tests, and use work rotation where possible to reduce noise exposure.
Employees must report elevated noise levels and noisy equipment to their supervisor. They must properly wear assigned hearing protection, and are responsible for keeping hearing protectors clean, and should replace them as necessary to prevent skin or ear irritation. Take an annual audiogram as assigned.
If the noise has not been evaluated, EH&S can perform sound level measurements to determine if the levels exceed permissible standards established by the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH). Based on the findings, departments can then take measures to reduce or control the noise, or provide hearing protection, training, and other elements of a Hearing Loss Prevention Program. EH&S will work with departments with high noise areas to install warning signs where noise levels equal or exceed 115 dBA.
Hearing Loss Prevention Training: This class is designed for all employees exposed at or above 85 decibels over an 8-hour shift. See the description on the EH&S Training web page at http://www.ehs.washington.edu/psotrain/corsdesc.shtm.
Reducing Worker Exposure to Noise
The first steps to decreasing exposure to noise for workers would be to implement engineering and administrative controls. This includes decreasing the noise coming from equipment, barriers and changing works schedules. More information can be found at:
How can noise be eliminated from the workplace? (L&I) (Word)
Reducing Hazards from Noise (OSHA)
If engineering controls and administrative controls may not be implemented then hearing protective devices should be used with every exposure equal to or over 85 dBA.
Hearing Protective Devices
Where engineering and administrative controls are not successful in lowering noise exposure, hearing protection devices must be used. DOSH requires that employees be offered a variety of hearing protection devices, including ear muffs and ear plugs. Noise exposure may be continuous, intermittent, or instantaneous (impulse). EH&S can assist in selection of the appropriate type of hearing protector for a particular noise exposure.
Commonly used hearing protective devices are earmuffs, and different types of earplugs. When choosing hearing protective devices, at least two choices should be provided and "the BEST protector is one you'll wear." Choose wisely. Plugs are available in different sizes and shapes to fit different ear canals; muffs are easy to put on and take off for short-term loud noise exposure.
Guide to wearing soft foam earplugs
At times a combination of earmuffs and earplugs may need to be used. These may be recommendations after a Noise Survey is completed by EH&S.
Post the caution sign shown above in areas where noise exposure may exceed 85 dBA as a time-weighted average.
Post the danger sign shown above In areas where noise exceeds 115 dBA, even intermittently.
If you are part of the hearing loss prevention program, you may have your hearing tested at the UW Speech and Hearing Clinic. If you are concerned about noise in your workplace and are interested in audiometric testing, please notify your supervisor. Do You Need a Hearing Test?
An audiometric testing booth
Regulations and Resources
Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) rules and resources.
UW Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Science: occupational noise, references, research, and instructional materials.
UW Administrative Policy Statement 10.3 on occupational safety and health.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Safety and Health Topic: Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention.
NIOSH: Hearing Conservation Program Evaluation Checklist Report all hearing loss, including that potentially caused by exposure to workplace noise, using the Online Accident Reporting System (OARS).