Forklift operation is an essential aspect of many companies and businesses across the world. From setting the warehouse to ensure operational efficiency up to managing inventories of materials and equipment within the facility, the duties of a forklift operator are never easy and simple. Without proper training, various accidents causing multiple and serious injuries can occur.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an average of 34,900 forklift accidents occurs every year in the United States.
These accidents are often caused by the common hazards in forklift operations like improper operation and use, the presence of obstructions, and load risks (Hinz, 2021).
However, one commonly unnoticed hazard faced by forklift operators is the excessive noise within the warehouse.
Even though hearing is a vital sense for forklift operators, only a few studies tackle the health damages brought about by the continuous and uncontrolled noise in this type of operation.
What is an Acceptable Noise Level in a Warehouse?
One requirement set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to employers is the implementation of a hearing conservation program. This program is carried out when the noise exposure is at or above an average of 85 decibels (dB) within an 8 hour long of working. One source of excessive noise in warehouses is forklifts. Strautins (2014) mentioned that the noise from the warning tones of the forklifts generates about 90-95 dB (A) in short bursts of duration.
The threshold of pain for the human ear is 130 dB. However, the safest noise level considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to avoid damage in the human ear is only 70 dB. This is 15 times less intense than the 85 dB set by the NIOSH for forklift operation, and about 25 times less than the noise generated by forklifts.
Thus, a maximum of 8-hour long of exposure is highly recommended to avoid the adverse effects on the hearing of the forklift operators (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017). Fink (2016) also emphasized in his study that long or repeated exposure to a sound that is at or above 85 decibels cannot only cause hearing loss but also contribute to stress, obesity, hypertension, and cardiac problems.
How Do You Control Occupational Noise?
The Department of Occupational Safety and Health recommended a three-step method to control noise within warehouses and workplaces as a whole:
1) Plant planning
3) Engineering control
Plant planning involves the overall design and layout of the warehouse. It includes detailed information on the noise characteristics of every machine and process, the proposed location of every component within the warehouse, and the selection of design standards based on the employees’ exposure time.
Secondly, substitution considers the purchase of new equipment with noise reduction specifications. It also encourages the use of materials that can control noise such as cork, glass wool, natural or synthetic rubber, and steel springs. Moreover, it initiates changes and modifications in the processes to generate lesser noise.
Lastly, engineering control focuses on the application of engineering techniques to control noise. It encompasses strategies to manage different types of noises and reduce their impacts, such as the modification of the energy source and the damping of the surfaces which vibrate due to mechanical forces.
Furthermore, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration emphasized the importance of determining the acceptable exposure limits for noise levels, as identified in the health and safety legislation, and the operation and productivity restraints and costs before formulating any solution to control occupational noise.
Should Forklift Operators Wear Hearing Protection?
An estimated 22 million workers are constantly exposed to damaging noise at their workplaces every year according to the Center for Disease Control. In warehouses where forklift operators are exposed to high levels of noise for eight hours, the use of hearing protection devices (HPDs) such as ear plugs or earmuffs is highly recommended. Typically, ear plugs have a noise reduction rating (NRR) between 22 dB to 33 dB while earmuffs can reach up to a 30-31 NRR (Fountain, 2022).
A study by Kwak and Han (2021) on the effectiveness of HPDs showed a significant difference in sound reduction in workers who wear HPDs than those who do not. However, the results of their study also showed that wearing an appropriate HPD is necessary for it to be effective in reducing noise.
Although most employers in the U.S. supply earplugs or earmuffs to the workers, wearing HPDs is still questionable for some of them. Thus, aside from providing HPDs, proper supervision and regular monitoring are also advised. Conducting hearing protector adequacy and training is also recommended. Additionally, the National Hearing Conservation Association advocated for individual fit testing of HPDs to ensure that every worker’s hearing condition and capability will be regularly assessed, and the HPDs that would be provided are specially designed for them.
How Does the Hearing Conservation Program by NIOSH Manage the Risks of Hearing Damages in Forklift Pperators?
The hearing conservation program required by NIOSH for employers involves specific ways to control occupational noise. Aside from HPDs and regular training, it also covers monitoring, audiometric testing, and recordkeeping requirements. Employers are obliged to monitor the noise exposure levels and identify the employees who are exposed to noise at or above an average of the 85 dB occupational standard over eight working hours.
It should include all types of noise within the range of 80 dB to 130 dB during a typical workday. This part of the program allows employers to implement necessary modifications to ensure that the workers’ health and safety are prioritized.
Audiometric testing is also one of the components of the hearing conservation program. This will regularly evaluate an employee’s hearing condition through authorized baseline and annual audiograms and follow-up procedures. These tests must be freely provided by employers. In case a hearing complication is detected, further tests must be administered to trace the source of the problem. Lastly, employers are also required to keep the noise exposure measurement records as well as the audiometric results of every employee within the warehouse.
The hearing conservation program is also focused on providing worksite analysis and inspection, as well as consultation assistance, both available upon the request of the employers.
What Other Innovations are now Utilized to Reduce the Noise Exposure of Forklift Operators?
Using electric forklifts that can generate noise as low as 60 dB, or between 65 – 75 dB compared to large diesel forklifts does not only produce lesser intense noise but are also fuel-free, thus no gas emissions are produced during operations. Electric forklifts are preferred by warehouses because of their high capacity and stability with very low maintenance costs. It is also designed to have a smaller turning radius for tight spaces, and automatic brakes.
On a larger scale, designing warehouses that can absorb sound and are soundproof is one of the most utilized innovations to reduce the noises inside and outside warehouses. This facilitates better and effective communication among the employees, thus preventing possible accidents. Soundproofing resolves noise issues outside the warehouse, while sound absorption addresses issues inside the warehouse itself.
One advantage of soundproof and sound-absorbing warehouses is echo reduction. Generally, huge acoustic panels are installed in the ceiling and on every available space on the walls of the warehouse. Integrating acoustical doors and windows to avoid sound leakage is also effective in most warehouses in the U.S. Aside from the installation of acoustical panels, denser industrial panels are also installed to maximize the soundproofing and sound-absorbing capability of warehouses.