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Construction Workers and Hearing Loss - Going Deaf for a Living

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You see them everywhere - hardhats, safety-orange vests, steel-toed boots, protective eyewear - these are the men and women who build our homes and offices, build and repair our roads, and raise skyscrapers to awe-inspiring heights. They're construction workers and according to an article published on Audiology Online , written by workplace noise expert Richard Neitzel, M.S., CIH, Research Scientist at the University of Washington, these hard-working builders are going deaf, experiencing hearing loss due to long-term exposure to noise on construction sites.

The author points to numerous causes of the problem:

  • a lack of hearing protection required by law
  • the transient nature of construction workers who don't "settle down" long enough to connect with a hearing care professional
  • various standards of acceptable noise levels by government agencies
  • the loudness and consistency of sound within the construction site area
  • difficulty in collecting data because of the transient nature of the work
  • lack of noise controls on equipment
  • lack of hearing health training on the job (for example, how to properly wear ear protection)
  • lack of understanding of the dangers of long-term exposure to noise by industry management and on-site managers.

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL)

That's the problem.

Like most body parts, over time, bits and pieces wear out from overuse, over-exposure and the natural aging process. This is especially true of our ability to hear. Hearing loss, caused by exposure to loud noises, is a growing problem despite government regulation and employee training according to Mr. Neitzel's report:

"Occupational health regulations governing the construction industry, including those pertaining to hearing conservation, are generally less comprehensive than those for the general industry. As a result, health surveillance and preventive programs for chronic diseases such as NIHL are limited in the industry. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has two regulations pertaining to hearing conservation in the construction industry. The first...sets forth an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA) permissible exposure limit of 90 dB, and requires a hearing conservation program (HCP) for workers whose exposures exceed this level. The second, [regulation] requires the use of hearing protection devices (HPDs) when noise exposures cannot be reduced below the PEL."

Safer Work Sites = Better Hearing Longer

NIHL is gradual and cumulative. The longer the exposure, the louder the noise, the closer the worker to the noise source - all factors among others that contribute to this unnecessary problem.

The fact is that solutions that make a real difference are either on the drawing boards or available at your local hardware store. No big deal. So, what needs to be done to lessen noise induced hearing loss among construction crewsr Let's take a closer look.

Hearing Protection

The Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) has determined safe noise levels and has made recommendations that specific ear protection devices be worn within sound levels of 85dB. Even that's loud.

The simple truth is construction sites are noisy places. Trucks, jackhammers, earth movers - loud stuff. So, one thing construction companies can do is provide their susceptible workers with appropriate ear protection. In fact, it's the law that companies provide appropriate ear protection when noise reaches "an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA) permissible exposure limit of 90 dB". Problem is, a lot of workers don't wear the hearing safety gear provided by their employers or they wear incorrectly.

Hey, a construction site is a noisy place but it's also a dangerous place and a lot of construction workers don't want to wear ear plugs because they might miss a warning call from above or miss the sound of the generator kicking in.

Employers and employees should know that today's hearing protection is sophisticated enough to cancel or block dangerous background noise but still allow the wearer to hear a conversation face to face. These "hear through" hearing protection devices are the perfect solution for a double shift on a busy construction site.

These noise cancelling hearing protection devices aren't cheap, but once hearing is gone it's gone for good in most cases and, for those of you who do work in noisy environments, put a price on your hearing. Is it worth $59r

NIHL can be prevented. Wear hearing protection devices whenever exposed to loud noise over a long period of time, whether you're pouring cement or laying asphalt. Be pro-active. And, if you're the company's owner, OSHA's regulations require appropriate protection against hearing loss and the penalties for non-compliance are a lot more expensive than investing in the hearing health of your work force. This one is a no brainer.

Noise Controls

Much of the ambient noise generated on a construction site can be mitigated to lessen the damaging impact this background noise has on construction workers.

In some cases, mufflers can be retrofitted to un-muffled heavy equipment. Most commercial saw manufacturers offer noise reducing saws and blades.

Another effective means of construction site noise control, according to Mr. Neitzel's report, is the use of sound barriers and enclosures to isolate on-going loud sounds from the work crew. A simple plywood barrier around a noisy generator will quiet things down and make work safer.

Again, the purchase and implementation of these noise controls will cost the construction company both time and money but the potential benefits, both short- and long-term will more than pay for these improvements.

On-Site Safety Oversight

There are a number of steps that can be taken at the on-site administrative level, according to Mr. Neitzel. These include:

  • Placing loud equipment further from site workers.
  • Posting signs warning of high noise levels.
  • Rotating workers out of loud jobs on a regular basis.
  • Providing breaks from loud noise even if protective gear is worn.
  • On-site training of construction workers.
  • Managerial enforcement of existing company and government regulations.

The Solutions Already Exist

After a thorough reading of the Neitzel Report, the average reader is going to ask "Why don't they just do these thingsr" Indeed, it's perplexing but the statistical data reveal that hearing loss among construction workers is on the rise.

One reason that the problem persists is because so many construction workers are employed by small operations - a local general contractor, for example. It may be as simple as that. Lack of oversight. Lack of concern.

Mr. Neitzel sums it up best:

"Noise and NIHL represent a serious health hazard in the construction industry. Noise exposure levels are often quite high among construction workers, and few, if any, trades are exempt from the potential for overexposure to noise.

NIHL is common in the industry, and the use of hearing protectors, which is the traditional approach to exposure reduction in the industry, is generally low. Efforts to reduce noise and subsequent NIHL in this industry should focus on implementation of noise controls, improved worker training, and proper use of HPDs (hearing protection devices)."

Although NIHL is a completely preventable occupational disease, without these efforts the burden of NIHL within the construction industry will remain heavy.

Indeed, the construction industry must bear the burden of worker hearing loss due to long exposure to loud noise. But, if you work construction (or mow lawns or work in a busy factory), take steps on your own and purchase the best noise protection device you can. Any hearing care professional will be glad to show you how to keep hearing better longer.

No matter how loud it gets at work.

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