Did you know that between 2009 in 2014, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s annual costs for noise-induced hearing loss claims for all sectors exceeded $50 million per year? Noise is a serious health hazard, and if worker exposure is not eliminated or controlled, it can cause permanent hearing loss, physical and psychological stress, reduced productivity, and significant interference with communication causing further accidents and injuries.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour has released a revised noise guideline in December 2016 to
accompany Ontario Regulation 381/15. Regulation 381/15, effective July 1, 2016, sets out requirements for noise protection in all workplaces in the province.
Ontario Regulation 381/15 is brief, but contains several important requirements for employers. For instance, employers have a responsibility to take all measures reasonably necessary in the circumstances to protect workers from exposure to hazardous sound levels. These measures must include the provision and use of engineering controls, work practices and hearing protection devices.
Moreover, employers must ensure that no worker is exposed to a sound level greater than an equivalent sound exposure level of 85 dBA, L ex,8 . Employers must protect workers from exposure to a sound level greater than this limit without requiring them to use and wear hearing protection devices.
That said, workers must wear and use hearing protection devices appropriate in the circumstances to protect them from exposure to a sound level greater than above limit if engineering controls are required and the controls: are not in existence or are not obtainable; are not reasonable or not practical to adopt, install or provide because of the duration or frequency of the exposures or because of the nature of the process, operation or work; are rendered ineffective because of a temporary breakdown of such controls; or are ineffective to prevent, control or limit exposure because of an emergency.
Employers must note that, where it is practicable, a clearly visible warning sign must be posted at every approach to an area in the workplace where the sound level, measured appropriately (without regard to the use of hearing protection devices), regularly exceeds 85 dBA.
Furthermore, employers to provide workers with a hearing protection device must also provide adequate training and instruction to the workers in the care and use of the device. This training must include information on limitations, proper fitting, inspection and maintenance and, if applicable, the cleaning and disinfection of the device.
In terms of hearing protection devices, they must be selected having regard to: sound levels to which a worker is exposed; the attenuation provided by the device; and the manufacturer’s information about the use and limitations of the device. These devices must be used and maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
The guide provides further details and assistance on complying with the regulation. At the outset, it is explained that the regulation applies to more than just industrial establishments, mines, and oil and gas workplaces—the following workplaces are now covered by this regulation: construction projects; health care facilities; schools; farming operations; fire services; police services; and amusement parks. Essentially, the regulation applies to all workers covered under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The goal of the regulation is to provide consistent protection to Ontario workers from noise–induced hearing loss. To that end, the guide provides information to constructors, employers, and other workplace parties on how to comply with the regulation.
The main information for employers is set out in the section entitled, Regulation. In this section, the employer’s duties are explained, including the employer’s general duty clause to protect workers from exposure to hazardous sound levels, the requirement to use signage, the obligation to train workers, noise exposure limits, noise measurement, protective measures, and the proper selection, care, and use of hearing protection devices.
One interesting section I would like to examine involves protective measures. In this section F of the guide, further assistance is provided for employers regarding how to use engineering controls, work practices, and hearing protection devices. More specifically, the guide states that measures include a hierarchy of controls and the list in decreasing order of effectiveness (ideal to last resort) includes:
- Elimination (including substitution) of the noise source: this is ideal.
- Engineering controls: Employers must consider all types of controls to protect workers against noise, but not every single type must be used because it depends on the circumstances (hearing protection devices may be used in conjunction with other control measures to minimize exposure to noise). Preferred on a long-term basis, these controls are based on controlling at the source (modification, retrofitting of equipment, replacement of worn parts, relocation of equipment) and controlling along the path of transmission before it reaches the worker (absorbing noise by installing enclosures, screens and shields, minimizing the noise reflected from surfaces using sound absorbing materials, enclosing a workstation in a noisy area).
- Administrative controls including work practices: An example includes reducing a worker’s exposure time to noise by reorganizing tasks or rotating work assignments to limit the worker’s total shift exposure to an acceptable level. These controls may be particularly useful on construction projects where the risk of exposure to noise by the workers of one contractor to noise generated by the work of another contractor could potentially be avoided through the project planning and the staging of work. It is recommended to use professional judgment when designing a job or worker rotation schedule to reduce worker noise exposure. Also, it is important to have a good preventive maintenance program to prevent equipment from becoming problematic. Acoustical consultants can often provide effective solutions for specific noise sources or for reducing noise exposures generally. The guide also contains an appendix with further resources.
- Wearing hearing protection devices: it is important to note that, given the hierarchy of controls, the preferred and most effective way to control noise exposure is through the use of engineering controls and that sets out the conditions under which hearing protection devices may be used for worker protection. The wearing of hearing protection devices to protect workers from hazardous sound levels should be considered as a last resort—they are often less protective than their ratings due to testing methodology, improper selection, use and fit, poor maintenance, and discomfort with prolonged use. Therefore, employers are recommended to document the other control measures that were considered and why those measures were not adopted.