At least 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise at work each year, OSHA reports. In 2017, employers were required to pay $1.5 million in penalties for not protecting workers from noise. OSHA also estimates that approximately $242 million is spent on workers’ compensation claims for hearing loss.
Long-term exposure to hazardous noise, a single instantaneous high noise exposure, or exposure to chemicals that damage hearing (ototoxic chemicals) can cause occupational hearing loss – a job-related illness that is permanent and potentially debilitating, but entirely preventable.
Each time an employee files a claim for occupational hearing loss (as opposed to traumatic hearing loss), the claim primarily relies on the largely uncorroborated statements from the claimant that the noise at work is loud.
Legal opinion is that in many cases, those statements alone, along with a doctor’s report that generally states ‘claimant is exposed to noise at work’ is sufficient to establish the claim. Neither the judge, counsel for the employer, nor the claimant’s doctor can hear what the claimant hears.
In 1981, OSHA adopted regulations requiring employers to create a Hearing Conservation Program in situations where workers are exposed to a time-weighted average noise level of 85 A-weighted decibels (dBA) or higher throughout an eight-hour shift.
These Hearing Conservation Programs require employers to measure noise levels, provide free annual hearing exams and free hearing protection, provide training, and conduct evaluations of the adequacy of the hearing protection equipment unless changes to tools, equipment and schedules are made to reduce exposure below the 85-dBA level.
OSHA’s maximum permissible (as opposed to day-long average) exposure limit is 90 dBA for all workers for an eight-hour day. In addition, the OSHA standard employs a 5-dBA exchange rate. This means that when the noise level is increased by 5 dBA, the amount of time a person can be exposed to a certain noise level to receive the same dose is cut in half.
NIOSH recommends that all worker exposures to noise should be controlled below a level equivalent to 85 dBA for eight hours to minimize occupational noise-induced hearing loss, also protecting the employer from unnecessary litigation.