Can you repeat that? Workplace sounds kill hearing

Factories and warehouses can reach 90 decibels, even a noisy office can hit 70. Are your employees protecting their hearing?

Construction workers and musicians often wear ear protection, but it’s not like your warehouse manager or office worker needs to, right? Actually, it might be a good idea.

For most Canadian provinces any occupational noise that averages more than 85 decibels over eight hours has to be monitored, with time limits for exposure.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), every year about 30 million people in the U.S. are occupationally exposed to hazardous noise – that’s about one in six. If Canadian numbers are comparable, the country could be looking at up to 3 million people a year facing hearing loss due to work noise levels.

The average office sits between 50 and 70 decibels, but if you’re on a busy road or next to a construction site your noise levels could be higher. For those working outside or in a warehouse environment the noise is likely to average 70 and above so it could be worth monitoring levels to ensure you’re within guidelines, and that your employees are safe.

“To help protect employees’ hearing, employers should consider engineering controls to eliminate or reduce noise levels,” workers compensation specialist Michael Heembrock said. “In addition, hearing conservation training, and hearing protection such as earplugs and earmuffs can be used to reduce the risk of hearing loss.”

Even if your office is quiet, noise could be affecting productivity. Studies have found that as little as 55 decibels can be distracting, and it’s a problem that’s only getting worse as open plan offices become increasingly popular.

Steps such as carpeting and partial barriers can help reduce how far noise travels, and in cases where those are not options some organizations have turned to “pink noise”.

It’s becoming increasingly popular, according to Derek Johnston, a partner at Soundmask Canada.

“It’s become far more prevalent recently,” he said. “You pump this noise in and I can have a normal conversation with someone four or five feet away, but I can’t hear what’s happening 20 feet away.”

It’s an extensive process that includes measuring the reverberation of a space (how much the sound “reflects” around the room – it’s what makes your voice sound tinny in a phone booth). Then speakers are installed, often above the ceiling tiles, to create a consistent noise-blocking sound throughout the space.

Whether it’s high volume noises, risking your staff’s hearing, or the low, distracting hum of other people’s conversation, assessing your office’s noise level could be an important step in ensuring the safety and productivity of your staff.

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