Occupational Hearing Loss Analyzed in Light of OSHA Push for Regulations
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that 30 million workers are exposed to noise levels high enough to cause irreversible hearing loss and an additional 9 million workers are at risk of hearing loss from nonnoise agents such as organic solvents, certain metals, and carbon monoxide, according to the analysis. Sounds above 90 decibels can be harmful enough to cause hearing loss, especially when the exposure lasts for an extended time, and without preventative measures, many occupations—from assembly linesman, to airport baggage handler, to orchestra conductor—can experience permanent hearing loss from sources of noise in the workplace.
According to the article, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2010 proposed new regulations questioning whether “personal protective equipment” (such as earplugs and ear muffs) was effective in preventing hearing loss or whether, instead, “administrative or engineering controls” (such as noise-canceling equipment for loud machines) were needed. OSHA’s new interpretation also proposed that employers exchange personal protective equipment for administrative or engineering controls if they could afford it. According to the article, the new interpretation soon initiated a national debate, where industry leaders arguing that the changeover would cause an unnecessary economic burden to small and midsized employers.
BLS data from 2004 onward show that certain industries have high rates and counts of hearing loss: The air transportation industry has consistently shown high hearing loss rates since 2004. Although occupations such as pilots, flight attendants, and ticketing agents might be the most noticeable to the average traveler, occupations such as baggage handlers, mechanics, and service technicians make up a substantial proportion of employment in this industry. These types of workers experience loud noises from aircrafts and are thus susceptible to occupational hearing loss.
Both food manufacturers and textile mills had overall hearing loss rates well above the average for private industry in 2010. Food-manufacturing plants continue to be very loud, partly because former manual processes have now become automated. Working conditions in textile mills differ vastly from one mill to another. Many textile mill employees work for long periods in close proximity to loud production machines. Recently, however, textile mills have been incorporating “noise shields” into their equipment in an effort to make the work environment safer. In some facilities, these machines generate floating filament, dust, and other non- noise agents that can exacerbate hearing loss.”
The BLS article says that the findings “can be used to develop policy to help abate occupational hearing loss in the most efficient ways possible.”