Is It Safe for Workers to Wear Earphones?

By: Cory Portnuff, University of Colorado Hospital, Audiologist and National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) Expert

With the widespread use of wireless earphones, many workers are requesting the option to listen to music. Employers should consider several factors in whether earphones are appropriate:

  • Auditory Awareness: Is the workplace a safe place to be using earphones? Can the worker hear and identify a warning signal, such as a forklift in reverse? Remember that some types of earphones do block out outside sounds, and loud music can mask warning signals.
  • Communication: Does the employee need to communicate regularly with coworkers or supervisors? If not, is there a way to quickly get their attention in an urgent situation?
  • Job Functions: Can the job be done while listening to music? Podcasts or audiobooks? This may vary by job function—a machinist may use auditory cues to know that their equipment is working properly, and use of earphones may limit this. Also, does music distract or improve attention?
  • Noise Exposure: Music players can be very loud (see image, above). Also, workers who are enrolled in a Hearing Conservation Program may need hearing protection. If hearing protection devices are required, hearing protection with an appropriate noise reduction rating (NRR) must be used. Some earmuffs with NRRs may have radios or earphones built in, and employers should evaluate if their use has the potential to push the employee’s noise exposure into a hazardous range.

Percent of device volume as it relates to decibel level on the A-scale (dBA) and the number of hours of listening permitted within recommended exposure limits to retain hearing.

Allowing earphone use in the workplace has both risks and benefits. Employees may perceive greater job satisfaction, if they can control their auditory environments and listen to what they want. But safety professionals should be cautious about allowing earphones, if there is any risk to the worker’s safety or hearing.

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