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Exposure to noise, too often, is more than just annoying and disruptive - it can permanently damage our hearing. Occupational noise is one of the most common health hazards in the workplace and can affect people differently, depending on how susceptible they are.
Low or moderate noise levels that may be found in an office, school or computer room, are most likely to cause annoyance and stress and may make it difficult for people to talk to and hear one another. Louder, "industrial-grade" noises, which may be found in a manufacturing facility, on a farm or even in a cafeteria, can cause permanent hearing loss.
How loud is too loud?
Occupational exposure limits (OELs) for noise are usually given as the maximum length of exposure permitted for various noise levels measured in decibels (dBA). The noise exposure limits vary within the different jurisdictions in Canada. CCOHS has more information on Occupational Exposure Limits for Workplace Noise in Canada on its website.
Even without technical measurements however, certain tell-tale signs can help you determine if your workplace has a noise problem. Do people have to raise their voices? After a shift, do their ears ring, and do they need to play their car radios louder than on the way to work? After working in a noisy environment for a few years, do the employees find it hard to understand conversations at parties, restaurants or other crowded places?
Health effects of exposure to noise
We immediately think about noise affecting our hearing but it can be blamed for other health effects as well. Though it's difficult to pinpoint noise as the culprit in some cases, researchers believe it may act as a general stressor and cause some symptoms that are totally unrelated to hearing - such as changes to blood pressure (e.g. high blood pressure) and heart rate. A noisy environment can affect how a worker breathes and sleeps and, generally, can have a negative effect on the worker's physical and mental health.
Hearing related health effects range from tinnitus (a ringing or buzzing in the ear), to temporary hearing loss that may improve over time in a quiet place, to permanent hearing loss. A person who is exposed to noise for long periods of time or is exposed often, or at high frequencies, may experience permanent hearing loss. Also known as permanent threshold shift, permanent hearing loss gets worse for as long as the noise exposure continues. Noise-induced permanent hearing loss is a cumulative process. Initially, noise-induced hearing loss is most pronounced at a frequency of 4000 Hz, but it spreads over other frequencies over time and as the noise level increases.
Sometimes, just one short burst of extremely loud noise such as a gun shot can cause acoustic trauma that damages hearing.
Besides noise, other factors that affect a worker's hearing may include vibration (e.g. from a jack hammer), the worker's age, certain medications and diseases, and exposure to "ototoxic" chemicals, such as toluene and carbon disulfide. Exposures to noise outside of work (e.g. recreational activities such as playing in a rock band, skeet shooting) are also factors that contribute to the person's overall noise exposure.
What can be done?
A noise assessment and employee survey can help determine where the noise is coming from, how much noise there is, who is exposed and for how long. The most obvious and effective solution to noise, of course, is to eliminate it, but that's not always feasible in the workplace. The next best option is to control noise at its source by lowering it to acceptable levels with engineering controls. Administrative controls, and the use of appropriate personal hearing protection are also used.
Engineering controls substitute or modify the noise source itself, or the workplace environment (e.g. enclosing the noise source, using mufflers on equipment etc). Administrative controls involve rotating work schedules, or changing production schedules, to keep noise exposure time within acceptable limits. Where technology cannot adequately control the problem, workers should wear appropriate personal hearing protection such as ear muffs or plugs, but only as an interim measure until noise is controlled at the source.
Controlling noise and preventing work-related hearing loss is essential. Once your hearing is lost - it's gone forever. Spread the message, but not too loudly!
You can find out more about workplace noise on OSH Answers.
CCOHS has more information on Occupational Exposure Limits for Workplace Noise in Canada
Learn about the e-course from CCOHS: Preventing Hearing Loss From Workplace Noise
Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention from NIOSH
The canned-air products people use to blow dust from computers, shredders, and other electronic equipment are fairly safe when used properly. Misused or abused, however, they become much more than dust-blowers.
In a recent incident, an employee working in a bowling alley was cleaning a paper shredder with a canned-air product. When she tilted the can, its contents started to spill out in liquid form. The liquid soon became a gas, which accumulated as a highly concentrated, flammable gas cloud. The gas ignited into a flash fire, causing burns to the employee's face.
The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has released a hazard alert on the improper use of canned-air products. This article summarizes the safety tips in the alert.
What "canned air" really is
"Canned air" is not the air you breathe. It is simply a common name for compressed gases used in dust-blowing products, many of which are highly flammable. These gases may also be toxic, depending on their concentration and the degree of exposure.
Inside the can, the gas layer sits above a liquid layer of the same substance. The user must keep the can in an upright position during spraying, to release only the gas layer from the nozzle. Tilting the can allows the liquefied gas to escape. If that happens, especially in an enclosed or poorly ventilated area, the gas may reach a concentration so as to create a flammable atmosphere. Any ignition source, such as an electrical switch, flame or spark in the area, can easily ignite the flammable gas.
Besides being a fire risk, the liquid in a canned-air product can also cause serious frostbite if it touches a person's skin. That's why most canned-air products carry a warning not to tilt or shake the can. High concentrations of the gas may also cause oxygen deficiency and breathing problems, but only in very high concentrations in enclosed, non-ventilated areas. Respiratory symptoms tend to only occur when the product is intentionally inhaled (a form of substance abuse).
Canned-air products come in different forms, using different gases. One commonly used, highly flammable gas is difluoroethane. Check the product label or Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) to find out exactly what's in the can.
Safe use of canned air
You can easily protect people in your workplace from the hazards of canned-air products by using the product as directed by the manufacturer. If possible, switch from a flammable product to a non-flammable alternative. Hold the can in an upright position while using. Use canned air in open, well-ventilated areas.
Users of canned-air products should read the label on the can, follow instructions, and have access to the MSDS for more detailed hazard information.
Knowing how germs spread can help you stop them in their tracks. Germs are often spread when you touch something that is contaminated and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Some germs are hardy and can live for a long time (hours or even longer) on surfaces like doorknobs, desks, and tables.
The best way to reduce the spread of infections is by washing your hands frequently with soap and water. Here are some other simple tips to help keep from spreading your germs to others, and to keep from catching someone else's - especially during the cough, cold and "flu" season.
9 hygiene habits to help reduce the spread of infections
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with warm water and soap, or alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
- Get the appropriate vaccine (for example, the flu shot).
- Stay home if you are sick (so you do not spread your illness to other people).
- Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing (or cough into your elbow).
- Use single-use tissues for wiping your nose, and throw them directly into the garbage after use.
- Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or using tissues.
- If you work with or have young children, have them play with hard surface toys that can be easily cleaned.
- Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth unless you have recently washed your hands (viruses can transfer from your hands and into the body).
- Do not share food, cups, glasses, dishes or cutlery or anything else that might be contaminated with germs.
Your employer can help by:
- Having an infection control plan (written plan outlining the organization's approach regarding infection prevention and control);
- Providing appropriate hand washing facilities;
- Offering waterless alcohol-based hand sanitizers when regular washing facilities are not available (or to people who work on the road);
- Providing boxes of tissues and encouraging their use;
- Reminding staff to not share cups, glasses, dishes and cutlery;
- Ensuring lunchroom dishes are washed in soap and water after use
- Routinely cleaning shared work areas, workstations and any other work areas where germs may be spread;
- Making sure ventilation systems are working properly.
Read OSH Answers for more information:
Good Hygiene Practices
Hand Washing - Reducing the Risk of Common Infections
October is National Influenza Immunization Awareness Month
It can start with a headache, chills and a cough. Before long you have a fever, your muscles ache, your eyes are watery, your nose is running and you are flat out fatigued. These symptoms signal the arrival of the flu. Influenza, or "the flu," affects millions of Canadians each year, mainly during the winter months. While most of those who become sick will recover, on average 20,000 people are hospitalized and 4,000 die each year in Canada as a result of the flu. The best protection against being infected with the virus is getting the influenza vaccine - combined with regular hand washing and proper cough etiquette (covering your mouth to reduce the spread of germs).
October is National Influenza Immunization Awareness Month, sponsored by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness and Promotion (CCIAP). This month provides the perfect opportunity to remind all Canadians that October is the time to roll up your sleeves for the flu shot.
The flu is a contagious respiratory disease that spreads easily in workplaces. With the flu shot being the best protection against it, workplaces can help employees and their families by organizing workplace influenza immunization clinics this fall. It's easier than you might think and it's cost effective. Research conducted by Buffet Taylor showed that workplace immunization programs can give employers a return on investment of over $60 for each worker vaccinated.
Helpful hints for establishing a workplace influenza immunization clinic
- Know the facts about influenza and its impact on your employees' health. Get informed by visiting credible websites such as:
- Public Health Agency of Canada:
- Canadian Coalition for Immunization Awareness and Promotion: www.influenza.cpha.ca
- provincial and territorial government websites
- local public health offices (agencies) websites
- Public Health Agency of Canada:
- Review the facts with senior managers, employees and unions. If everyone understands that this is a serious disease for many people, and that it can be easily prevented by immunization, a workplace clinic may be accepted more easily as an important health initiative.
- Assign someone, or a small group, to organize the clinic. Large workplaces may have occupational health staff who can organize and conduct a clinic. You can also hire a health care agency, such as a private nursing agency, to come to your workplace when it's most convenient for you. Look in your local yellow pages under 'nurses'. Private agencies usually provide the vaccine, information and consent forms for a small fee, usually less than $20 per person.
- Promote the clinic to employees and provide them with information on flu prevention methods. You'll find reliable information on the websites listed above.Your local public health office may also have handouts.
- Provide a comfortable location for the clinic, and even some light refreshments if you can. You might want to set a percentage goal of employees to be immunized, and advertise your progress. Don't forget to count how many were immunized at their doctor's office, pharmacy or local health clinic. It all counts!
If you decide against holding a workplace clinic, be sure to inform your employees about the public clinics held in your community, or refer them to their doctor. There may be a small charge in some cases, usually less than $20 per person. It's a small price to pay for protection from the flu!
New edition of pocket guide now available
For the many of us who spend half of our waking hours at work, it's no surprise that there is a link between our overall health and well being - and our work environments. When we feel valued, respected and satisfied in our jobs and work in safe, healthy environments, we are more likely to be healthier and more productive and committed to our work. So it makes sense that workplaces should take an active role in helping their employees stay or become healthy, both physically and mentally. Healthier employees means healthier workplaces -- everyone benefits.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety recently released the newly updated Workplace Health and Wellness Guide written for anyone who wants to learn more about workplace health, wellness and occupational health and safety. It can be useful to those who are involved in developing and implementing workplace health and wellness programs by helping them tailor a program to meet the specific needs of their organization.
This spiral-bound handbook has been updated to reflect the evolution of workplace health with current guidelines and recommendations. It walks you through the steps you need to take to develop your own workplace health promotion programs that can help:
- Provide a safe and healthy physical work environment;
- Embrace work organization principles that offer a balance between job demands and control over the work (to prevent illness and stress);
- Support healthy lifestyles and encourage personal development;
- Promote active participation by all to help improve the health and well being of everyone at work.
Filled with tips, checklists, illustrations and ideas, the guide is a practical workplace program and reference resource that you can put to use right away. Many of the tips and suggestions can be used as handouts for participants in employee training sessions, so it's an ideal tool for joint health and safety and wellness committees and human resources personnel.
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
© 2017, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
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