By Matt Luman, 360 Training
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) may not be the first construction hazard that comes to mind, but it’s so gradual victims may not realize anything is wrong until it’s too late. Permanent hearing loss is devastating; it cannot be corrected with surgery or hearing aids.
About 23,000 cases of occupational hearing loss were reported in 2007, and 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise each year. A study found that between 1996 and 2010, 58% of workers experienced significant abnormal hearing loss due to noise. Nearly 80% of welders suffered from hearing loss and 47% of roofers experienced NIHL.
The construction industry saw the second highest number of workers exposed to noise hazards (manufacturing was the first).
Noise Hazards in Construction
A construction site is a noisy place to work no matter what precautions are taken. Regular 8-hour exposures to 85 dBA can damage your hearing. If you have to use a jackhammer for 1 hour per day, you may experience hearing damage. The higher the noise level, the faster the hearing loss.
This is bad news for construction workers because much of the equipment they use regularly is above the 85 dBA exposure level:
- Jackhammer: 100 dBA
- Chop saw: 105 dBA
- Chain saw: 110 dBA
- Hammer drill: 115 dBA
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that a 25-year old carpenter is likely to have the ears of 50-year old person who has not been exposed to noise.
You may be exposed to various types and levels of noise of varying duration for much of your work day. But hearing damage, and the symptoms, can take time to develop. That’s why employers should provide yearly hearing tests for workers routinely exposed to hazardous noise levels. This can help determine if more needs to be done to protect your hearing.
There are a number of devices, like sound meters and dosimeters, that measure noise levels, but you often don’t have access to them while you’re working. So what do you do? Use the 2-to-3 foot rule: Standing an arm’s length away from a coworker (i.e. 2 to 3 feet), if you need to raise your voice to be heard, then the sound level is probably at or above 85 dBA.
Tell Tale Signs of Hearing Loss
Most occupational hearing loss is gradual, though the rate is greatest during the first 10 years of exposure. Continued noise exposure can cause hearing loss of frequencies needed to hear speech.
Awareness of the symptoms can help you identify possible damage and take the precautions necessary to reduce the damage. Signs of hearing loss include:
- Noise or ringing in your ears
- Difficulty hearing people on the phone
- Regular speech sounds like mumbling
- Difficulty hearing people when there’s background noise
- Trouble hearing cell phone rings or back-up alarms
- People have to repeat what they said
- You hear muffled or distorted speech sounds
Also, OSHA recommends a self-test for workers who drive to work. Before you get out of your vehicle, turn off the engine and set the radio to a talk radio station so it’s barely loud enough to hear. At the end of your work day before you start the engine, note whether you can hear the radio with the power on. If you have trouble hearing it, there may be damage and you’ll need to better protect against high noise levels.
Minimizing the Hazard
Administrative controls, engineering controls, and personal protective equipment can limit noise levels and exposure. OSHA recommends a 3-step noise hazard control process:
1. Reduce: Use quieter equipment.
2. Move: Use extension cords to move the equipment father away. Move generators farther away.
3. Block: Build temporary plywood barriers to block the noise. Put a wooden box over a loud generator.
Planning ahead is the best weapon against NIHL. When work is scheduled in an environment or with equipment that may pose noise hazards, employers can:
- Conduct regular safety meetings.
- Build sound barriers.
- Reschedule the loudest tasks for when there’re fewer people around.
- Procure quieter equipment.
- Limit the hours each worker has to work in hazardous noise areas.
- Post warning signs in hazardous areas and near equipment.
- Require hearing protection.
Sometimes administrative and engineering controls aren’t enough to adequately reduce noise to safe levels. Construction workers likely to be exposed to harmful noise should wear hearing protective devices.
The various types of protection available are designed for specific conditions. Proper and consistent use of these devices is imperative for effective protection. If they aren’t comfortable and convenient, you might not use them, so it’s important that employers procure well-fitting, easy-to-use PPE.
When selecting and wearing hearing PPE, consider:
- Communication needs
- Convenience and comfort
- Noise level of the task
- Noise reduction of the devices
- Hearing ability
Typical hearing protective devices include roll down foam plugs, reusable earplugs, custom molded plugs, canal caps, and earmuffs.
Remember: Your employer is required to provide you with the necessary PPE. If you don’t see it, ask for it.
Knowledge is Power and Safety
Education and communication are vital. Under OSHA, employers are required to provide workers with safety training in a language and vocabulary they can understand. Workers need to know the permissible limits, the dBAs of common construction tools and tasks, the noise and duration levels that cause hearing loss, and how to protect themselves.
Remember: You have a right to know. One of your rights under OSHA is the right to be informed about the hazards you may face on the job.
Workers should also be encouraged to inform supervisors of noise hazards they encounter on the job. Employers cannot address a hazard if they don’t know about it. While hazard analyses, quick machine risk assessment, and safety programs should already be in place, new hazards may arise periodically.
Safety is a team effort.
Matt Luman is the EHS Product Marketing Manager at 360Training.com. He is an OSHA-authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry and Construction such as OSHA 10 Hour Training. Prior to 360Training.com, Matt worked for many years in the Oil and Gas Industry, spanning numerous sectors.
View the ISEA Hearing Protection Buyers Guide: https://safetyequipment.org/resources/buyers-guide/hearing-protection/