Does hearing protection count as controlling noise?

by on January 17, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

In noisy environments, you need to do more than offer workers hearing protection. If possible, you need to find ways to control the noise, too.

“OK, you’ve been out here all day,” said Supervisor Pete Graham. “What’s the verdict on the noise levels?”

“Bad news,” said state safety inspector Nancy Chung. “Our eight-hour readings averaged 93 decibels over eight hours.”

“Are you coming back tomorrow?” asked Pete.

“Yes,” said Nancy. “I want to take some more measurements.”

“I think I may be able to get the noise levels down,” said Pete.

Second try
The next day, the supervisor instructed his crew to move a generator about 30 feet away from the work area. He shut down unneeded equipment. And he changed the work procedures – a machine used to vibrate wet concrete was used in the pour hole, instead of in a nearby drum.

Nancy did her measurements throughout the day.

“How did we do?” Pete asked at the end of the shift.

“Good news today,” said Nancy. “You came in at 88 decibels average for eight hours.”

“That’s a lot of effort to save five decibels,” said Pete.

Now below threshold
“Yeah, but now you’re below the 90-decibel legal threshold,” said Nancy. “I’ll have to write up a citation for yesterday, but I can move on now.”

“Wait,” said Pete. “My guys were wearing hearing protection the whole time.”

“True, but that’s a different rule,” said Nancy. “You must reduce levels if feasible.”

“This doesn’t seem right,” said Pete. “My guys weren’t exposed to a hazard. Our company will challenge this citation.”

Did the company get the citation dismissed?

No, the company had to pay a fine for a serious violation under the state’s labor laws. The judges noted the company was confused about the difference between the need to minimize noise and the use of hearing protection.

Under the regs, companies must abate noise, if feasible, below a 90-decibel noise level average over eight hours. The level was over 90 before the supervisor intervened; after the changes, below 90. That was the bottom line – it was possible to reduce noise levels, and the company didn’t attempt it until confronted by a safety inspector.

As to hearing protection, the judges noted: “Hearing protection reduces the risk of hearing loss but does not eliminate it because earplugs are not always effective and may not always be worn. Thus, the regulation itself explains that hearing protection is not considered a control of the noise hazard.”

Take home: Don’t fall into this trap. In noisy environments, you have to test the decibel levels. PPE is a last resort – if a work site is getting too noisy, you may be able to take common sense steps to reduce it, just as this supervisor did:

  • Move noisy equipment away from workers.
  • Shut down equipment when you aren’t using it.
  • When possible, change procedure to reduce noise levels.

When in doubt, work with your safety director to find ways to control noise.

Cite: Mowat Construction Co. v. Department of L & I of Washington, No. 60765-1-I, Wash. App.

photo credit: quinnanya

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