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Listen up! Reduce workplace noise in 4 steps

Efforts have recently ramped up to protect Ontario's workers from noise-induced hearing loss. They include a new noise regulation with stricter duties for employers, a year-long noise initiative from the Ministry of Labour, and a new education and awareness campaign from Ontario's Occupational Disease Action Plan.

In addition to hearing loss, exposure to noise can lead to many issues, such as stress, hypertension, poor sleep and mental health, and physical injury due to communication issues. These non-auditory effects are now being considered by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), which sets exposure limits that many jurisdictions rely on.

"There couldn't be a better time to refresh and strengthen your noise prevention program," says Wagish Yajaman, a WSPS occupational hygienist and member of Ontario's Occupational Disease Action Plan.

Why the focus on noise?

Noise affects "virtually every workplace in Ontario, no matter the size or the sector," says Wagish. And with noise comes noise-induced hearing loss if proper controls are not in place. One in five adults aged 19 to 79 already have mild hearing loss or more in at least one ear. Chances are, with time and continued exposure their hearing will worsen.

Statistics like these have prompted the Ministry of Labour to launch an occupational noise initiative. From April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018 inspectors will be looking at how - and how well - you are protecting workers from noise.

A new noise regulation (381/15) passed in July 2016 says employers must follow a "hierarchy of controls" to protect workers. Under this hierarchy, engineering controls and work practices come before personal protective equipment (PPE), such as earplugs and ear muffs. "When you look at costs at the end of the day, engineering solutions are actually a better option," says Wagish. "That's because you are not relying on the variability of the human being to wear it. Instead, you're controlling the noise everywhere."

Take action now

Follow these four steps, says Wagish, to create your own noise prevention plan.

  1. Determine if your workers are exposed to high levels of noise. "Pinpoint where the sources of noise are, and who's going to be affected where."
  2. Conduct a risk assessment. "You can do a rudimentary assessment just by walking around and listening." If you're looking for preliminary numbers, rent a sound level meter. There are also apps available that can be used as screening tools. "Make sure you know how to use them, and don't rely on them for complete accuracy," advises Wagish. "If you find numbers are hovering around 85dB (the current occupational limit over 8 hours), call in an occupational hygienist to do a proper survey."
  3. Determine the best way to protect employees:
    • Start with engineering controls. Can you reduce noise at the source or along the path of transmission? Before implementing a control (such as enclosing a machine), check with an expert to ensure you're not introducing new hazards.
    • Look at work practices. Could repairs make machines less noisy? Could you adjust schedules to reduce workers' exposure time or duration, or increase distance from the source?
    • Consider PPE if other controls are not possible. Select carefully, says Wagish, and talk to employees about what kind of protection they'd prefer and which is most comfortable. Train on care and use, including proper fit, limitations, inspection and maintenance, and hygiene (dirty ear plugs can lead to health issues).
  4. Ensure your controls are working. "Implement a surveillance program that includes audiometric testing to make sure people are using hearing protection correctly and not suffering hearing loss," says Wagish.

Watch for more about Ontario’s Occupational Disease Action Plan in an upcoming issue.

How WSPS can help

1. Broaden your understanding with training:

2. Speak with one of our occupational hygienists today about assessing noise levels in your workplace and developing a noise reduction plan: 1-877-494-WSPS (9777)