Machines and equipment found in meatpacking, poultry and food processing plants produce high levels of noise. Exposure to loud noise, over a long period, causes permanent hearing loss. Hearing loss is an occupational illness that is easy to ignore, because it can’t be seen, doesn’t ache or hurt, and may take years to develop. Noise exposure is also linked to increased blood pressure, headaches, increased irritability and sleep disruption.
What Types of Noise Levels to Look For
Indications that you may be exposed to dangerous noise levels at work, include:
- Shouting in order to be heard by a co-worker standing approximately two feet away;
- Ringing or humming in your ears after leaving a noisy work area;
- Turning up the volume on the radio or TV, louder than normal; and
- Family, friends and co-workers noticing that you have trouble hearing them.
Noise is measured in units called decibels (dBA). OSHA has set a permissible exposure level of 90 dBA averaged over an eight hour day. Employers must take steps to control and reduce noise exposure above this level (see controls below). Employers are also required to take steps to protect workers who are exposed to noise above 85 dBA averaged over an eight hour day. By law, employers must:
- Measure the noise levels in areas of the plant with exposures above 85 dBA, or in areas where workers think they are overexposed to noise;
- Provide hearing protection in the form of ear plugs or ear muffs at no cost to the employee;
- Provide workers with annual hearing exams or audiograms to ensure that they are not losing their hearing (a baseline exam is required for all new employees within 6 months of the employee’s first exposure to noise above 85 dBA);
- Follow-up with employees whose annual audiograms show they are suffering from hearing loss (OSHA’s Access to Employee Exposure and Medical RecordsStandardprovides access to these audiograms to the employer and designated employee representatives who have been given written consent by the employee. This does not violate HIPAA laws); and
- Provide training and education on noise and health effects.
Affected employees or their union representatives have a right to observe the noise monitoring conducted by the company. It is recommended that a safety committee union member accompany management when it is conducting noise monitoring.
Methods for Reducing and Controlling Exposure to Noise
The most effective controls for noise are those that reduce noise at the source where the noise is produced, such as the substitution of noisy equipment with quieter equipment or machines.
Engineering controls are changes or modifications which are made to the noisy machine or equipment. Examples of engineering controls include:
- Enclosing the machine or equipment to insulate and reduce noise;
- Installing mufflers or baffles on equipment such as air compressors or compressed air-driven tools or machinery; and
- Installing vibration mounts to absorb noise generated by vibrating equipment.
Reduce noise along the path (the space between the machine and the people working close to the machine) through the use of barrier curtains or walls between equipment and worker, and the use of sound absorbing materials on walls or ceilings.
Note: Sound absorbing materials may be a less practical solution in a food plant because of the difficulty of finding suitable materials for use in a food production environment.
Good maintenance makes a large contribution to reducing noise levels. This includes tightening screws, aligning machine parts, oiling or greasing machinery, and replacement of worn parts such as bad bearings.