Do you suffer with Manufacturing and Noise Pollution?

If so, you should read this article to protect your hearing.

Everyone knows what it’s like to go into a really loud restaurant, where conversation is difficult at best. You spend your evening yelling across the table to be heard. When you get home, you are absolutely exhausted.

Worker cutting boltsYour auditory system has been working double-time, doing its best to filter out unwanted noise in an effort to hear the conversation. This same problem is ubiquitous in the workplace.

In fact, nearly 35 million people in Canada and the U.S. are exposed to hazardous noise levels every day, yet many workers and employers are simply unaware of the risks. Sound from metal stamping machines, saws, drills, CNC machines, and welding stations permeate work areas, and we naturally speak or yell louder to compensate. As the day wears on we tire and judgment falters. Mistakes are made, productivity is reduced, and in worse cases, accidents occur.

Exposure to high levels of noise (a.k.a. sound pressure levels, or SPL) can cause both short-term and permanent hearing loss. In fact, noise- and volume-related hearing loss has been documented as one of the most widespread workplace health concerns in North America.

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Tens of thousands of employees suffer from preventable hearing damage caused by high workplace noise levels every year.

OSHA-logoAccording to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 2004, 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss. In 2009 alone, the BLS reported more than 21,000 hearing loss cases. In 1981 OSHA implemented regulations to protect all workers in general industry and mandated all employers to implement a hearing conservation program. OSHA regulations allows eight hours of exposure to 90 A-weighted decibels (dBA), but only two hours of exposure to 100-dBA sound levels. For reference, 90 decibels (dB) is about equal to listening to a classical music concert, and 100 dB is a loud rock concert.

Accumulated exposure over long periods can not only cause deafness, but reduced auditory sensitivity at specific frequencies.

ear-defense-packaging-265x415Exposure to high SPL in manufacturing and industrial plants can also provoke physical and psychological stress, impede communication, diminish concentration, and reduce productivity.  For instance, when you are working in a noisy environment, yelling across the room to a co-worker to avoid a safety hazard becomes hard, if not impossible, creating unnecessary workplace accidents and injuries due to the inability to hear the warning call.

It should also be noted that prolonged and constant exposure to lower volumes of sound pressure can also affect hearing and cause long-term hearing damage.

Mandated hearing conservation programs are in place in most countries. These programs legally require employers to measure noise levels; provide free hearing exams, ear protection, and training; and monitor the noise levels in the work environment.

The first line of defense against excessive noise exposure should be to reduce the sound pressure to the point where the risk to hearing is eliminated or minimized. With the reduction of even a few decibels, the negative impact on hearing is reduced considerably, communication is enhanced, and noise-related irritation is greatly reduced.

With protective measures in place, manufacturers also reduce their health costs and long-term liability.

The usual first line of attack is to provide workers with protective hearing devices such as isolation headphones or earbuds.  These are required gear for a worker exposed to extreme noise. The problem, however, is that these impede communication and safety, are uncomfortable, and are effective only at certain frequencies.  Workers often stop using them and suffer the results.

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In most manufacturing plants the floor is made of concrete; the ceiling is often corrugated steel; and the walls are either cinder block, tilt-up concrete, or gypsum board.  Noise from the various machines ricochets off these hard surfaces to create a cacophony of noise known as the reverberant field.

The echo self-perpetuates, and the SPLs inside the room elevate to the point where a constant din abounds.

The solution is actually quite simple: “Trap” the sound as early as possible before it echoes back into the room.  A rule of thumb is to cover between 10 and 25 per cent of the wall surfaces with absorptive acoustic panels.  Sound energy penetrates the soft panel, causing the internal fibers to vibrate, creating a thermodynamic reaction that essentially converts sound into heat.

Various types of panels are available in the market all of which perform differently.

The resulting workplace will not only be a safer, it will be less stressful for the employees, improve their productivity, and reduce long-term health costs.

James Wright