Manufacturing facilities might want to pay extra attention to employee noise exposure because OSHA definitely is. Noise levels in manufacturing facilities across multiple states are under increased scrutiny as a result of an OSHA regional emphasis program for Region 5, which includes the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
No new regulations have been announced. Instead, OSHA is focused on enforcing existing regulations to protect the hearing of manufacturing workers. To avoid potential penalties, manufacturing facilities should assess their workspaces for compliance with OSHA guidelines. If noise is a problem in your facility, acoustic panels, curtains, and baffle systems can help.
The Region 5 Regional Emphasis Program
In an effort to identify and reduce excessive noise exposure in manufacturing, OSHA Region 5 has joined several other areas of the country in creating a regional emphasis program aimed at noise. The program was announced in June 2021 for immediate implementation. Similar regional emphasis programs are already in effect in Regions 1, 3, 4, 6, and 7.
While the name Regional Emphasis Program (REP) for Exposure to Noise Hazards in the Workplace sounds broad, the program focuses almost exclusively on the manufacturing industry. And with good reason. Workplace noise may be the biggest health and safety challenge facing the manufacturing industry today.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 75.9 percent of hearing loss cases occur in the manufacturing industry. Workers in transportation equipment manufacturing, food manufacturing, and fabricated metal product manufacturing make up the highest number of cases.
In an effort to address these issues, the REP empowers regional officials to:
- Schedule and conduct inspections of select manufacturing industries with hearing loss rates higher than the national average.
- Encourage employers to identify, reduce and eliminate hazards associated with exposure to high levels of noise.
- Provide notices and education around noise, hearing conservation programs, and OSHA regulations.
If your facility is in Region V, you may receive communications from OSHA to remind you of regulations, invite you to engage in training sessions, and share the latest news about how noise affects workers. OSHA officials may also choose to inspect and review your operations, records, and health and safety programs.
You can find the full list of manufacturing industries being inspected by reviewing the OSHA REP declaration. It includes facilities manufacturing everything from concrete pipe to aircraft. Ultimately, whether your facility’s NAICS code is on the list or not, you should make meeting noise exposure guidelines a priority.
OSHA Noise Regulations and Penalties
OSHA penalties for failure to abate can reach up to $13,653 per day, while willful or repeated violations can cost up to $136,532 per violation. Those numbers don’t include the productivity losses and potential legal penalties that could result from inadequate noise protection for employees.
Inspectors operating under the REP may review your noise monitoring and conservation programs. They may also take their own readings throughout your facility. You’ll want to verify that your employees never exceed OSHA’s permissible exposure limit. OSHA recommends that employers keep noise levels below 85 dBA for an 8-hour shift. As dBA increases, the amount of time an employee can be exposed to the noise decreases. Excessively noisy workspaces can lead to productivity loss since employees are not allowed to spend as much time in the space.
Personal protective equipment like earplugs and headphones can help protect the hearing of manufacturing workers. But remember that employee noise exposures are computed without regard for personal protective equipment, per OSHA regulation 1910.95(c)(1). So an employee can’t work in 90 dBA for 8 hours even with ear protection. However, employers can make adjustments to the spaces where manufacturing employees work to help minimize noise.
Strategies for Reducing Worker Exposure to Noise
As mentioned above, PPE can help protect workers, but it’s not enough to meet OSHA standards for hearing conservation. You’ll need other strategies to bring noise levels down to acceptable ranges. These could include:
- Investing in quieter machines. This is often the most costly option since much of the equipment used in manufacturing is purpose-built and expensive to purchase.
- Limiting worker exposure. This may help you meet the letter of the guideline, but it also reduces how long employees can work, which reduces productivity. Your losses will compound over time.
Installing acoustic panels, curtains, and baffle systems. Such acoustic barriers and containment systems can reduce noise, echo, and reverberation, with a much lower one-time investment than new machines. Over time, they can increase productivity by allowing workers to safely spend more time in the space.
Acoustic Panels Reduce Noise in Manufacturing Spaces
Sound barriers can minimize noise by either absorbing sound and vibration or by blocking them. The most effective solutions do both. While some noise is still reflected or transmitted, the overall A-weighted sound level is reduced.
Here are three ways you can use acoustic sound barriers to meet OSHA noise regulations:
- Enclose the noise – if a piece of equipment is particularly noisy, you may want to enclose it with a single-barrier or double barrier curtain panel. These enclosures can protect employees outside the barrier from the noise of the equipment.
- Separate two noise sources – If you have multiple pieces of loud equipment, you can set up a double absorption single barrier to minimize exposure in both areas. Hanging these in an accordion pattern can increase sound absorption in both spaces.
Absorb overall noise – Multi absorption curtain panels and acoustic baffle systems can cover hard surfaces that would normally reflect noise and create echoes. You can use them on the ceiling, wall, or free-hanging to cover any hard surface in your workspace.