Hearing protection for construction workers
Work-related hearing loss is a critical workplace issue, with an estimated 30 million workers, including construction workers, exposed to high levels of noise and the potential for permanent hearing loss. In construction industry studies, 44 percent of carpenters and 48 percent of plumbers reported hearing loss. Here’s all you need to know about hearing protection for construction workers.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) hearing conservation program is designed to protect workers from hearing impairment, even those that will be subject to high noise exposure throughout their careers. The hearing conservation program requires employers to monitor noise exposure levels during typical work days and protect workers accordingly with engineering controls, administrative controls and/or hearing protection.
Engineering controls involve modifying or replacing equipment to reduce the noise level. This type of control includes using low-noise tools, maintaining and lubricating machinery and equipment (e.g., oil bearings), placing a barrier between the noise source and the worker, and enclosing the noise source.
Administrative controls include making changes in the workplace or work schedule that reduce or eliminate worker exposure to noise. Some examples are operating high noise level machines during shifts when fewer people are exposed, limiting the amount of time a worker spends at a noise source, providing quiet areas where employees can get relief from noise on breaks, and controlling noise exposure by placing the noise producing equipment as far from the worker as possible.
If engineering or administrative controls are not feasible or don’t adequately lower noise levels, OSHA regulations require use of personal protective equipment against noise. Employers must provide hearing protection to all workers exposed to eight-hour noise levels of 85 dBA or greater at no charge to the employee. Employees must be allowed to choose from a selection of hearing protection types, including at least one type of ear plugs and one type of ear muffs. The protection provided should be comfortable to wear and offer sufficient protection to prevent hearing loss.
OSHA also requires employers to provide a correct initial fitting of hearing protectors and replace hearing protection, as needed. Whenever a change in working conditions occurs, the employer must reevaluate the suitability of the hearing protection, providing more effective protectors when noise levels increase.
Employers must train employees in the proper use of hearing protectors at least annually. OSHA has determined that workers who understand the reasons for the hearing conservation program and the need to protect their hearing will be more motivated to wear the protectors. Training should include:
- The effects of noise
- The purpose, advantages and disadvantages of various types of hearing protectors
- The selection, fit and care of protectors
- The purpose and procedures of audiometric testing
OSHA provides different type of publications or eTools (electronic tools) on its website to show employers how to develop a comprehensive hearing conservation program at www.osha.gov.
Steps you can take to protect your hearing on the job
Use of hearing protection among U.S.construction workers is low, partly because masking necessary communication and warning signals can be dangerous. But exposure to high noise levels is also dangerous. Workers can protect their hearing by:
Making the workplace quieter. Put sources of loud noise, like compressors and generators, as far away from the work zone as possible. Plywood or plastic sheeting set up around machinery will help shield noise.
- Cutting the time spent around loud noise. Ask to be rotated from noisy jobs to quieter jobs when possible and take rest breaks away from noise.
- Using hearing protection that’s easy to put on and take off. Some hardhats have earmuffs for hearing protection that can be lifted out of the way when you don’t need them.
- Having hearing checked every year. Ask for at least a standard pure-tone test. Tell the tester your work is noisy, so they know you may have lost some hearing.
- Monitoring effectiveness of hearing protectors. Check the foam seal that surrounds the ear on earmuffs, flanges on rubber ear plugs and body of foam earplugs, which can all lose elasticity. The head band on earmuffs also can relax so it no longer provides a snug fit. It is the employer’s responsibility to be sure your hearing protection is replaced when necessary and to pay for the new protectors.
Noise is measured in decibels (dBA) and a small change in decibels results in a huge change in the amount of noise and the potential damage to hearing. Most construction noise comes from the use of tools and equipment. Some typical levels are:
|Tools and equipment||Typical noise levels|
|Pneumatic chip hammer||103-113 dBA|
|Concrete joint cutter||99-102 dBA|
|Asphalt roller||93-100 dBA|
|Earth tamper||90-96 dBA|
|Portable electric saw||88-102 dBA|
|Front-end loader||86-94 dBA|
|Measured by construction activity||Typical noise levels|
|Installing rebar||88-90 dBA|
Ten ways to recognize hearing loss
The following questions will help you determine if you need to have your hearing evaluated by a medical professional:
- Do you have a problem hearing over the telephone?
- Do you have trouble following the conversation when two or more people are talking at the same time?
- Do people complain that you turn the TV volume up too high?
- Do you have to strain to understand conversation?
- Do you have trouble hearing in a noisy background?
- Do you find yourself asking people to repeat themselves?
- Do many people you talk to seem to mumble?
- Do you misunderstand what others are saying and respond inappropriately?
- Do you have trouble understanding the speech of women and children?
- Do people get annoyed because you misunderstand what they say?
If you answered “yes” to three or more of these questions, you may want to see an otolaryngologist or an audiologist for a hearing evaluation. This material is for general information only and is not intended for diagnostic or treatment purposes.