By Cecile Felsher, CIH | Director, EHS & Air
Noise is present in our everyday life and can be a source of disturbance. It can significantly impact human health, and continual exposure can cause stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, hearing loss, and many other health problems.
For years, regulatory agencies have made a concerted effort to reduce noise exposure for employees in the work environment and in everyday life. Regulatory agencies utilize noise impact analyses to evaluate the effects of new industrial facilities, residential properties, and surface transportation projects have on the public.
Employees that work in noisy environments and individuals exposed to loud noise at home or in their community, are at higher risk of hearing loss.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) addresses potential noise exposures in the workplace through the hearing conservation program (29 CFR 1910.95). This standard requires that employers establish a hearing conservation program for employees whose noise exposures equal or exceed an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) of 85 dBA. To meet the requirements of this standard, companies are required to evaluate the noise levels in their facilities and determine the potential occupational noise exposure for each position in the company. Noise levels are measured using personal noise dosimeters for each representative position in the company and using a sound level meter to measure noise levels near the sources. Noise mapping can be helpful to determine the main noise sources and develop engineering solutions to reduce the noise in a facility. The implementation of engineering controls such as noise barriers and the implementation of administrative controls such as limiting access to loud areas if not necessary can help reduce occupational noise exposure.
As part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act written in 1970, the federal government created the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) whose task was to carry out investigations and studies on noise and its effect on the public health and welfare. However, in 1981, the Administration determined that noise issues were better handled at the state and local level and decided to close the ONAC. The primary responsibility of responding to noise issues was transferred to state and local governments. To this day, cities, counties, and states implement noise ordinance as part of their local code of ordinances or zoning ordinances. California requires Noise Impact Analysis for projects with potential noise impact to the community through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Environmental noise is mainly composed of road traffic, rail traffic, air traffic, and industrial activity. The federal government through the U.S. Department of Transportation is engaged in noise control through its numerous operating agencies such as with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates noise generated by aircraft and airports. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) have issued environmental regulations to evaluate the environmental impact of their projects which includes noise regulations.
Local jurisdictions are encouraged to understand the noise impact on their residents and develop goals to reduce or limit the environmental impacts of new projects in the community. Noise impact analysis provides a description of the current ambient noise levels, evaluates the noise levels emitted by the new project, and compares them to the local regulatory limits to determine the significance. Mitigation measures are also analyzed as needed by the projects. The implementation of those measures is often critical for the local community to ensure their peace will not be disturbed.
As cities keep growing and building their infrastructure, noise is a part of our everyday life. Its impact should be evaluated and addressed to limit its effect on our society.