FILE - earplugs

The Illinois Occupational Health and Safety Administration is spreading the message about worker hearing damage.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 22 million American workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise on the job, according to a news release from the agency.

Ben Noven, director of Illinois OSHA, said that damage can come from noise levels that are lower than what some think of as dangerous.

“Basically, workers who were exposed to noise levels at about 85 decibels (for) hours should be provided with some sort of hearing protection or mitigation,” he said.

“A whisper, for example, is around 30 decibels," Noven said. "An alarm clock, as another example, is around 80. A belt sander is approximately 95 decibels, a jackhammer is 110 or so, and an emergency vehicle siren puts you around 115.”

"The louder the noise, the shorter the time of exposure,” Noven said. “OSHA allows for 8 hours at 85 to 90 decibels, give or take. To put things in perspective, at 100 decibels, this would drop down to just 2 hours of safe exposure. The allowable time definitely correlates with the decibels in the loudness of the work-related task.”

Noven said all employers should include noise measurement when they conduct safety assessments, and that includes noise levels experienced by workers furnished with ear protection.

“Just because you are wearing earplugs doesn't mean that you're in a safe level," Noven said. "Let's say your task puts you at (the) 150 level, which is very high, but if those earplugs are rated to reduce it by 25, you're at 125. That still tops you over the allowable range."

Illinois OSHA helps all public employers and some private ones assess their workplace and make remediation recommendations. It works in tandem with federal OSHA, which provides 50 percent of its enforcement funding and 90 percent of its consultation funding.

He said the state agency prefers to remediate rather than reprimand. Most employers, he added, want to keep their workers safe.