Did you hear the one about hearing loss? Probably not..

By: John Lott, OSHA Authorized Outreach Instructor
Noise exposure is one of the major workplace hazards we face in our industry. Whether working in a shop, on stage, or in a studio, we are often exposed to noise hazards that can cause permanent hearing loss. OSHA estimates that twenty-two million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise at work each year. Unfortunately, noise exposure is also a hazard that we often ignore until it’s too late.
Noise-induced hearing loss limits your ability to hear high frequency sounds and understand speech, which seriously impairs the ability to communicate. Hearing aids may help, but they do not restore your hearing to normal since exposure to loud noise kills the nerve endings in the inner ear. And continued exposure will result in more dead nerve endings. The result is permanent hearing loss that cannot be corrected by surgery or medicine.
Have you ever left work (or started a load out) and sensed ringing or buzzing (tinnitus) in the ears, and/or slight muffling of sounds, making it difficult to understand people? These are early signs of hearing loss and means that you ears have been damaged. Hearing loss builds up over time so if you continue to expose your ears to these kinds of noise level you will develop permanent hearing loss.
OSHA requires employers to have a hearing conservation program when employees are exposed to noise levels of 85 decibel (db) for 8 hours or more. As a reference point, 85db is generally the noise level where you have to raise your voice when speaking to someone 3 feet (or an arm’s length) away and 95db is when you have to yell for someone to hear you 3 ft or an arm’s length away. It’s also important to understand that OSHA’s noise exposure is time weighted, which means that for every 5db increase to noise exposure, you half the exposure time before potentially suffering hearing damage. For instance, OSHA allows for 8 hours of exposure at 90db. However, at 95db the exposure is time is reduced to 4 hours, at 100db its 2 hours, and at 105db it is reduced to 1 hour. Continuing this trend 110db is 30 minutes, 115db is 15 minutes, 120db is 7 minutes (by the way, the output of an iPhone with earbuds is 115db peak, which means that you could be damaging your hearing in a as little as 15 minutes of listening to music at full volume). Concerts and symphonies routinely reach peak levels of over 125db, which means that you could have hearing damage in as little 3.5 minutes of exposure.
So what can you do to protect yourself? The first step is to find out if your employer has a hearing conservation program in place. Employers should be providing you with hearing personal protective equipment (PPE), either in the form of ear plugs or ear muffs, to prevent your hearing from being damaged. It’s important to understand that not all hearing protection is equally effective and that hearing protection is rated by decibel reduction. In order to figure out which PPE you need, determine both the decibel level you are going to be exposed to and also the length of time you will be exposed. For instance, if you are going to be exposed to 110db for 4 hours, you would need hearing protection that was rated for at least -15db (110 minus 15 is 95db which is the maximum permissible decibel exposure for 4 hours). Another part of this program is to provide regular hearing tests to measure whether you might be suffering from hearing loss.
If you are unsure if your employer has a hearing conservation program, ask your department head or steward. If you still can’t get information or you find out the employer doesn’t have a hearing conservation program and you believe that they should, please contact your Business Agent or the Local One Safety Committee (safety@iatse-local1.org).  You have the right to a safe workplace and we want to make sure you rights are protected. As always, remember UNION SAFE IS UNION STRONG.

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