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HITEC II STUDY – WORK ENVIRONMENT

Occupational Noise Exposure

Overview

Noise in prison environments can affect your ability to communicate, your ability to hear warning sounds, your sense of well-being and your hearing. Noise in the prison environment is therefore both a safety and a health issue. This section provides information about noise, the effects of noise, how it is measured, self-assessment for possible hearing loss and how you can reduce your exposure to noise.

Introduction

Corrections officers face a variety of noise situations that may create discomfort and interfere with accurate communications.

Because prisons are typically made from concrete and steel, sounds are reflected or bounce off walls rather than absorbed. The reverberation (sound bouncing off surfaces) created by the large number of people in the space creates a noisy environment. In addition, the use of two-way radios may contribute to the noise. As the level of background noise increases, correctional staff turn up the volume on the radio to hear the messages better, which in turn increases the background noise.

Hearing Loss

One result of working in a noisy environment is hearing loss. While this may not be an immediate concern for correctional safety, it may impact officers’ ability to communicate and affect their personal safety. Work is not the only place where someone can be exposed to unsafe noise levels. Certain hobbies, such as woodworking, riding all-terrain vehicles or even using power tools to do yard work, can expose someone to unsafe noise levels. The use of headphones or ear-buds to listen to music at high volumes also poses a risk to hearing.

One of the early signs of hearing loss is difficulty understanding people speaking in a crowded room. Hearing loss progresses slowly, and you may not notice any decreases until the change is so significant that you have trouble understanding communications. This interference with communication and concentration can pose danger at work. Accidents and injuries due to limited ability to hear warning signals are recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as an occupational hazard.

Even without any long-term effects such as hearing loss, short-term exposures to loud noise can lead to tinnitus (ringing in the ear), which may persist after the loud noise disappears.

Other Effects of Noise

Noisy environments can cause emotional and physical stress, fatigue and headaches. Noise exposure can also increase blood pressure.

How Is Noise Measured?

Noise levels are measured as sound pressure levels in the air, using units called decibels (dBA). The measurement scale is logarithmic, which means that a small increase in noise level represents a large increase in acoustic energy. A change of 3 dBA is actually a doubling of the acoustic energy.

OSHA has set limits on noise exposure in the workplace based on an eight-hour workday. The permissible noise exposure level set by OSHA is 90 dBA for all workers for an eight-hour day (e.g., exposure to sound of a lawn mower equals 90 dBA). NIOSH recommends that all worker exposures to noise be below 85 dBA for eight hours in order to reduce hearing loss (e.g., exposure to sound of a snow blower equals 85 dBA).

Self-Assessment for Possible Hearing Loss

The following questions are a self-assessment for possible hearing loss. If the answer to any of these is “yes,” you may have lost some hearing.

  • Do people have to raise their voices for you to hear them?
  • When you are in a group of people, sitting around a table in a quiet place where you can see everyone else in the group, can you follow the conversation?
  • When you are talking to someone in a place where there are a lot of echoes, such as large railway station, can you understand what the other person says?
  •  When you are speaking with someone, such as a fellow officer, in a room where there are many other people talking, such as at a party or in the correction facility’s cafeteria, can you understand what the other person says?
  • When you are listening to a communication device such as a two-way radio at work, can you understand the message?

What Can Be Done to Reduce Your Noise Exposures at Work?

Make the workplace quieter by design changes: Add sound-absorbing materials, modify equipment or make changes that reduce the amount of sound reaching your ears.

Reduce the total noise received using organizational changes: Change worker shift rotations to alternately quiet and noisy work locations.

Effective hearing conservation program: Required by Connecticut OSHA when worker exposure to noise is greater than or equal to 85 dBA for an eight-hour exposure (Action Level). The purpose of the program is to prevent occupational hearing loss, and preserve/protect remaining hearing, by providing workers with hearing protection devices.

Protecting oneself from noise exposure at work and home: Hearing loss is permanent. Exposure to noise is not limited to work. The home environment can also become a potential source for exposure to loud noise. Common noise exposures at home include vacuum cleaners, city traffic, lawn mowers and normal conversations, just to name a few. There are several ways to protect one’s hearing at home: Lower the volume of the source of noise if you have control over it, wear earplugs or ear muffs when handling sources of loud noise and reduce the time you are exposed to a certain loud noise.

Information adapted from:

CDC Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention

OSHA Occupational Noise Exposure

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety: Noise