If you listen to a few hours of day-time radio, you will likely hear advertisements to the effect that listening to the music at work can help the day go faster. We’re not going to challenge that notion, but would ask managers and safety directors to consider the additional costs and risks that they are exposing themselves to by allowing music – whether it’s through speakers or headphones – into the work place.
First, it’s important to understand that “helping the workday go faster” means distracting employees from their work by allowing them to “zone out.” When performing precision tasks or working with heavy machinery, this is obviously problematic. Additionally, the extraneous noise can make it difficult for employees to hear alarms, vehicles backing up or co-workers in distress.
However, distraction is only one reason why employers should be concerned with letting their employees listen to music in the workplace. Another factor to consider is the potential injury caused by the music itself increasing the overall decibel level that employees are exposed to throughout the workday.
Here is a brief examination of how allowing music in the workplace creates an unsafe work environment and exposes employers to potential OSHA citations and other legal liabilities. We have also included guidelines to help employers protect their employees and themselves.
Music in the Workplace Negatively Impacts Your Time-Weighted Average
When inspecting a facility for potential noise violations, OSHA will primarily look at the Time-Weighted Average (TWA) or the overall noise level that employees are exposed to over an eight-hour period.
When combined with the existing noise level of an industrial workplace, the dangers of music are three-fold.
First, if you have a radio playing, it’s going to expose employees to additional decibels, which over the course of an eight-hour shift can have a drastic impact on the TWA.
Second, the matter is further complicated by the fact that employees will have to turn the music up loud enough to be heard over the machine that they are working on. This not only increases the overall decibel level, but it also creates an unsafe work environment by introducing increased distractions and making it even more difficult to hear critical alarms.
Third, employees may have to turn the music up loud enough to be heard throughout the entire department, which will likely expose those closest to the source to potentially damaging decibels and, of course, have an even greater effect on the TWA and cause even more distractions.
Special Guidelines for Headphones and Music
OSHA released a memo on the matter back in 1987 that has held up pretty well in concept even as the technology has changed over the decades.
The memo only lists two universal violations:
- Use of Walkmen in noise environments in excess of Tables G-16 and D-1
- Use of Walkmen over a required ear protection
However, despite the ban, we still see employees putting music headphones over top of protective ear plugs. The protective ear plugs are issued to protect an employee’s hearing from exposure to industrial noise levels, but to be heard over the protective ear plugs and the industrial background noise, the music has to be louder than both. Like with speakers, music headphones increase the overall noise reading.
Beyond that, the matter is largely left to managerial discretion except where the headphone usage creates enough of a hazard that it violates other OSHA regulations by creating an unsafe work environment. These hazards would include failing to hear alarms, vehicles backing up or the calls of co-workers who may be in distress.
Additionally, we can’t stress enough that headphones and ear buds offer no hearing protection whatsoever.
Who is Responsible for Injuries Caused by Music in the Workplace?
OSHA will consider the matter of workplace noise in two ways:
1. OSHA noise violations
Even if no shifts or injuries are detected during Audiometric Testing, employers can still be found in violation if they are exposing employees to decibels that are outside of the prescribed limits. The company is responsible for the overall noise exposure – the decibel level – that employees are exposed to. This decision will be based on the TWA, which needs to be clearly posted. If the TWA for each employee or department isn’t posted, then the company can be cited. The TWA does not differentiate between industrial noise and music
2. OSHA injury reporting
If shifts are detected, then the Audiometric Testing process proceeds as planned. The company has 30 days to re-test the employee to confirm the shift. If the shift is confirmed, the company can either list the injury on the OSHA 300 Log or do a Workplace Determination.
During the initial test, the employee will be asked to fill out a questionnaire, which will ask if they listen to loud music. It doesn’t elaborate as to whether or not the exposure is in the workplace or not, and it doesn’t differentiate between headphones and speakers.
If the shift is confirmed and the matter goes to a Workplace Determination, the reviewing physician/audiologist will present them with a second questionnaire that will also inquire about their exposure to loud music.
The physician/audiologist can go one of two ways depending on how the employee fills out the questionnaires. If the employee indicates that he or she listens to loud music, then the physician/audiologist will likely rule in favor of the company. But even if the shift is being caused by exposure outside of the workplace, the company is still taking a risk and they should do everything to minimize exposure in the workplace because ultimately the burden of proof will be on them.
Additionally, when shifts are detected during annual testing, it will end up costing the company money to perform the retests and Workplace Determinations, so it’s best to minimize the risk in any way that they have control over before it ever becomes an issue.
Additional Legal Liabilities of Music in the Workplace
In addition to complications that arise when injuries are listed on a company’s OSHA 300 Log, companies can find themselves being sued by employees who believe that their hearing loss is the fault of the employer.
As with any incident or injury in the workplace, it is best to do the Workplace Determination as close to the incident as possible to make sure that the injury and the working conditions are accurately documented.
A Workplace Determination in favor of the employer can help settle legal matters that might arise down the road. Memories and details fade over time, but the determination will always be there.
Guidelines for Noise Levels in the Workplace
- Headphones and speakers increase overall decibel exposure and cause a variety of other safety hazards.
- Remember that exposure to decibels is recorded as a Time-Weighted Average over an eight-hour period, and music will only add to that total.
- Post the TWA for employees or departments where it can be seen by all employees – failure to do so can result in citations.
- Write a clear company policy regarding music in the workplace and include in the handbook.
- Take proactive measures to reduce decibel exposure in the workplace to avoid potentially costly retesting and Workplace Determinations.
- If a Workplace Determination is needed, try to get it as close to the time of the injury as possible.
At the end of the day, if it happens under your roof, you are responsible for it. If your company allows employees to listen to music at work, then the company could ultimately be responsible for any hearing loss that employees experience.
That said, we highly recommend not allowing any type of music in the workplace – especially in departments where the noise exposure is over 85 decibels. The safest course of action – both for your employees’ hearing and your OSHA liabilities – is to exercise as much control as possible over your facility’s TWA.