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Are Music Headphones a Workplace Hazard?

Music at the gym, music on the commute, music at work. With the advent of portable music devices and smartphones, music headphones and earbuds are being used everywhere to provide a pleasant auditory background and mask environmental noise in our daily milieu, including on the job.

But music headphones are not a substitute for proper hearing protection. In a letter of interpretation issued in September, 2019, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) outlined the issue of substituting music headphones or earbuds for proper hearing protection, as well as the hazards and risks posed by listening to music on construction sites.

Here is what you need to know.

Distractions and risks

Distracted walking is a proven health hazard. “Headphones used with handheld devices pose a safety risk to pedestrians, especially in environments with moving vehicles”, a study concluded in 2012.

While listening to music on construction sites is legal, it is highly discouraged where moving vehicles are present and may be forbidden by management. In this context, listening to music can prove life-threatening. For instance, loud music can mask environmental sounds produced by moving equipment, power tools or traffic, and workers may get struck by falling objects. 

Caught-between and struck-by hazards are two of OSHA’s “Fatal Four” hazards, along with falls, and electrocutions. Struck-by injuries occur when a worker encounters a flying, falling, swinging or rolling object, and is the second-highest cause of fatalities among construction workers. Struck-by accidents also happen when materials are lifted and workers find themselves in the swing radius of a crate, for example.

Nail gun accidents are also particularly common. Nails can ricochet from striking a metal surface, so bystanders need to steer clear from the area. That is why workers need to pay attention to their surroundings at all times.

Music-induced hearing loss (MIHL) 

MIHL is hearing loss due to excessive, unprotected exposure to loud music, be it from a personal device such as a smartphone or from attending a live music event.

Like other noise-induced hearing losses, MIHL is the consequence of listening to music at levels over 85 dBA for prolonged periods of time. It can negatively affect our short-term, as well as long-term hearing ability. With MIHL, understanding speech is very challenging and listening to music can become less enjoyable.

It’s no surprise, then, that professional musicians are four times as likely to develop noise-induced hearing loss than the general population. And they are 57% more likely to develop tinnitus—ringing or buzzing in the ears—according to the same study. For some, the ringing or buzzing can become permanent and often more debilitating than the accompanying hearing loss.

The myth of OSHA-approved headphones

“OSHA does not register, certify, approve, or otherwise endorse commercial or private sector entities, products, or services”, the agency writes in a recent statement. Therefore, any manufacturer’s claims of OSHA-approved or OSHA-compliant headphones is misleading.

When it comes to usage, OSHA does not prohibit the use of headphones as long as doing so does not violate the need to protect workers from exposure to hazardous noise. OSHA requires employers to implement a hearing conservation program when noise exposure is at or above 85 dBA averaged over eight hours (an 8-hour time-weighted average, or TWA). Em¬ployers can decide whether the use of headphones is permitted on the worksite or not: “The use of headphones on a construction site may be permissible at managerial discretion unless such use creates or augments other hazards apart from noise,” the agency writes, but also cautions that, “A portable music player is not a substitute for hearing protection….”

The best of both worlds

Worryingly, headphone users tend to increase the volume if they can’t block out environmental noises, according to the Hearing Health Foundation. Fortunately, this issue can be resolved by using hearing protectors with technology that permits safe listening to music and speech communications while simultaneously protecting hearing from loud environmental noise. Where permitted by management, listening to music on the job can increase worker productivity and decrease the tedium of repetitive tasks.

Active hearing protectors may incorporate built-in AM/FM radios, audio inputs, and stereo microphones for face-to-face communication¬¬. A volume control adjusts the amplified signals from the microphones, radio, and external audio input, but circuitry limits the output from the electronics to a safe maximum level of no more than 82 dBA. The stereo microphones also help preserve localization cues, so spatial orientation and situational awareness are maintained.

Advanced systems known as tactical communications and protective systems (TCAPS) include two-way radio connections and noise-canceling ear-level stereo microphones to maintain critical face-to-face radio communications and situational awareness. These systems are designed as integrated high-noise solutions and have hearing protection, fit testing, and in-ear dosimetry built into as well. 


Learn more about our latest hearing protection technology.

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Alexandra Serban
Content Marketing Specialist
Alexandra Serban is the Content Marketing Specialist for Honeywell Industrial Safety. A seasoned writer and digital storyteller, she is learning and reporting on industrial safety news, trends and products.