Every industrial workplace wants to keep its employees safe. In many cases, the steps to do that are clear, like wearing helmets and using fall prevention equipment, but some considerations are easier to overlook. Noise pollution falls into this latter category.
While noise may not seem like an immediate threat, it’s a serious safety concern. Thankfully, workplaces have many options to reduce these hazards and keep workers safe.
The Dangers of Noise Pollution
Roughly 25% of all workers experience hazardous noise levels at work, and 16% of them have hearing loss that affects their day-to-day activities. In industries like construction that use lots of heavy machinery, employees are even more likely to encounter dangerous noise levels.
It takes just 15 minutes for noise at 100 decibels or higher to damage workers’ ears. A construction site could easily reach that level for extended periods, but even if not, they could still be hazardous. Lower noise levels are still dangerous after prolonged exposure, and noise doesn’t need to cause hearing loss to be risky.
A noisy workplace can make it difficult to focus, potentially leading to hazardous mistakes. Similarly, employees may not be able to hear approaching hazards or coworkers calling for their attention.
As troubling as this issue is, there are effective solutions. Here are six changes employers can make to protect their workers from noise pollution.
1. Eliminate Noise From the Start
The most effective way to address noise hazards is to remove them entirely. Workplaces should consider how much noise a piece of equipment creates when deciding between options. An increase in just ten decibels represents a tenfold increase in sound pressure, so seemingly small differences can have a substantial impact.
Electric equipment is often far quieter than gas-powered counterparts. However, even electric tools and vehicles can be loud, so businesses should never assume something is quiet. Asking for decibel information or testing products before buying them can help guide more informed decisions.
There may not be low-noise versions for every machine businesses need, but there are almost always quieter alternatives available. Including this factor in equipment buying decisions can help reduce noise from the start.
2. Keep Equipment in Top Condition
Another important step in reducing noise pollution is proper equipment maintenance. As tools wear, vibrations and friction will increase, creating more noise. Just as worn-down brakes squeak and grind, poorly maintained heavy equipment will run louder than they should.
One of the most significant parts of noise-reducing maintenance is lubrication. All sound comes from vibrations, and well-lubricated parts will vibrate less because there’s less friction between moving parts. As a result, they’ll make less noise, protecting the ears of the workers who use them.
Loose parts may also cause excessive noise from rattling against others. Tightening screws and replacing worn-out parts can help prevent this unnecessary sound. Since it doesn’t take long for high noise to cause damage, workplaces should maintain equipment regularly to prevent excess noise before it arises.
3. Install Anti-Noise Measures
While eliminating noise from the source is the most effective strategy, noise mitigation is also necessary. Businesses today have many options for tools, add-ons and devices that will dampen or redirect noise to minimize its impact. These can be as simple as foam insulation or as complex as internet of things (IoT) active speaker systems.
Insulation dampens vibrations but isn’t applicable with every piece of equipment. Sound walls and curtains work well for stationary machinery, blocking soundwaves from reaching employees’ ears.
Some workplaces can install more advanced, active noise cancellation systems. IoT anti-noise solutions use a system of microphones and speakers to detect incoming noise and emit similar but inverse soundwaves to cancel it. As a result, they stop many of these waves before they reach employees.
4. Minimize Exposure to Loud Processes
Businesses can also issue some administrative controls to minimize noise pollution exposure. While workplaces may not be able to avoid all noise, they can limit how long it lasts or how many people are around it.
For example, teams could only run dangerously loud equipment when fewer workers are present. Whenever they need to use these tools, they can schedule to do so when most employees are on break or have left work. While some workers will still be present for the noise, fewer will, reducing overall exposure.
Teams can rotate the workers who are present for these shifts to further minimize exposure. Similarly, if workplaces are unavoidably loud around the clock, frequent breaks can help reduce prolonged exposure.
5. Provide Appropriate PPE
After following these other steps, employers should provide hearing protection to employees. If a workplace contains loud noises, even below OSHA’s permissible limit, hearing protection should be a standard piece of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Hearing PPE comes with a noise reduction rating (NRR) that signifies how many decibels it blocks. Businesses should measure how loud their workplaces are to determine what NRR their employees need. For example, if a workplace averages around 90 decibels, employees should use PPE with at least a 20-decibel NRR to reduce this noise to a safe level.
In some workplaces, not all workers will need hearing PPE. For example, if someone works in a room next to loud equipment, the walls likely provide enough sound damping to be safe. Workers in the room with that equipment, however, should have this PPE.
6. Establish a Hearing Conservation Program
Finally, businesses should create a hearing conservation program. OSHA requires workplaces with noise levels of 85 decibels or higher to establish these programs, but they’re a good idea for any workplace, even if they don’t meet that threshold.
These programs should include regular noise monitoring to identify noise hazards and who they may affect. Businesses should then measure the adequacy of the protections they have in place and provide more if necessary. OSHA also requires them to provide free annual hearing exams and hearing protection.
Training employees on the dangers of noise pollution and how to avoid it is also important. That way, workers can avoid mistakes that could jeopardize their hearing. Regularly reviewing these practices can help ensure they remain effective.
Noise Pollution Is a Hazard That Deserves Attention
While noise pollution may not sound like a severe issue, it can cause substantial damage and increase other workplace hazards. Mitigating noise levels will help protect workers’ hearing and ensure other risks aren’t as dangerous as they could be
These six steps can help any industrial workplace lower and address their noise levels. They can then ensure their employees can work efficiently and recognize other hazards.