The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that on-the-job exposure to hazardous levels of noise affects some 22 million Americans. Standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration address the need to protect workers from hearing loss, requiring employers to take mandatory steps when noise levels in the workplace reach certain thresholds. Although the rules obligate employers to provide hearing protection when noise exposure hits at least 85 decibels over an eight-hour day, OSHA guidelines cover earphones only in the context of those special hearing protectors.

Hearing Protection at 85 Decibels

Hearing protectors mandated by OSHA include hearing muffs and earplugs. Employers must allow employees to choose which they prefer and provide professional assistance to ensure proper fit. Employers also must educate workers on the dangers of noise exposure, care and use of their hearing protectors and hearing test procedures. All noise-endangered workers must have an employer-paid initial hearing test to establish hearing ability and must be tested annually thereafter, at the employer's expense, to measure any change.

Hearing Protection at 90 Decibels

When noise levels rise to 90 or more decibels, OSHA places an additional mandate on employers: They must either alter or replace the equipment that creates the noise or perform what OSHA terms "administrative controls" to reduce the time an employee is exposed to the noise hazard. The agency permits the use of hearing muffs that let employees to listen to background music if the volume is kept below this higher noise threshold. OSHA also ruled that earphones and similar devices used in a work environment of 90-decibel noise readings constitute a violation.

Earphone Considerations

OSHA holds employers responsible for compliance. Although it gives them discretion in permitting headphone or earphone use on the job in low-noise environments, it advises employers that earphones worn over earplugs is a violation. An OSHA study found that earphones used with the volume turned up could expose users to hazardous noise, jeopardize hearing and limit their ability to hear important ambient sounds such as warnings. The agency recommends educating employees of the danger of listening to loud music on or off the job.

Sound Advice

OSHA's 85-decibel noise criteria equates to the sound a lawnmower makes. If you use earphones, keeping the volume below that level and giving your ears a break every couple of hours can reduce the potential for damage to the fine hairs in your inner ear that enable you to hear. Listening to music while sitting in an office cubicle may help some workers concentrate on their tasks, but it also may isolate them from conversation and interaction with colleagues that could hamper their performance, notes a post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.