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In the works: A noise exposure matrix that includes every job and industry

April 10, 2015
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When University of Michigan professor Richard Neitzel proposed the idea of a job noise exposure matrix to NIOSH several years ago, he hoped to gather half a million samples of data.

He now has about 1 million, and he’s not done yet.

“As with all research, more is better,” Neitzel, assistant professor of environmental health sciences, told me.

Neitzel and his team of seven researchers are working to develop a U.S./Canada Job Exposure Matrix that lists noise exposures for every job and industry. A worker could use the matrix to determine if his or her job is below or above the average in terms of noise exposure.

“You type in your job title into the database and realize, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re 20 decibels higher than the average noise measurements for others in our industry. That means we’re exposing our workers a lot more than we need to. We should do something about this,’” Neitzel said. “I would love for this to be a tool for companies to identify weaknesses and address them.”

The matrix also could help expand research. Noise exposure has been connected to various health issues beyond hearing loss, including cardiovascular disease, stroke and stress. Researchers could use the matrix for their own studies instead of having to collect their own data, Neitzel said.

OSHA, NIOSH, Canadian provinces and various companies have handed over decibel measurements for average noise and loudest noise levels, along with the respective job title and industry. Canada was included in the project because the country has similar jobs and occupational regulations, Nietzel said.

Neitzel’s team has a wealth of data for the manufacturing, mining, construction and other industries, but the researchers have few measurements for industries such as aviation, service and retail, and oil and gas extraction.

“There are a lot of jobs where people simply haven’t thought to go out and do the measurement,” he said. “That’s one of the hurdles we’re facing.

“For some jobs, like service and retail, the only source of information we can find is in literature, where researchers are starting to say, ‘Let’s talk about a coffee barista.’ No one ever really thinks of them from an occupational health perspective. But if you’re standing in front of a coffee grinder all day, that’s potentially quite noisy.”

The research is sorely needed, Neitzel said, and the project (which was funded by a grant from NIOSH) is the first of its kind in the United States. The most recent “serious efforts” of evaluating work noise exposures occurred in the 1980s in the United States, and Canada also has old data, according to the project’s website. Another job exposure matrix for noise conducted in Sweden collected about 500 noise measurements, Neitzel said.

“Just from the amount of data alone, we’re really pushing the science forward,” he said.

One reason why gaps in knowledge exist is hearing issues can sometimes easily be ignored, Neitzel said. An individual usually immediately realizes he or she has an eye injury due to pain and vision loss, for example, whereas hearing loss typically develops over years.

“If hearing loss was immediate and your ears bled when they were hurt, we’d probably care about it a lot more. It’s just been easy to ignore,” Neitzel said. “We’ve come a long way in keeping people safe from day to day on the job, but we’ve still got a long way to go to protect against these long-term health effects.”

Neitzel hopes to complete the study by September 2016. He plans to collect data until May.

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