Noise barrier

Preventing hearing loss among construction workers

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

  • According to NIOSH, 1 out of every 4 workers will become hearing impaired at exposures to 90 dBA (the federal permissible exposure limit for construction workers).
  • OSHA began the process of revising noise regulations for construction workers in 2002, but removed the item from its regulatory agenda in April.
  • The state of Washington holds construction and general industry to the same noise standard, which some say shows stricter regulation can work without harming businesses.
  • Industry and labor groups agree workers need better education on how to protect their hearing.

When a high-pitched wristwatch alarm went off during a training session on hearing conservation about five years ago, Laura Boatman and another trainer heard it from across the room. However, none of the 20 or so construction workers in the class seemed to notice the noise – not even the one wearing the watch.

“We looked around and nobody was turning it off,” recalled Boatman, project coordinator for the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California in Sacramento. “We realized that nobody else in the classroom could hear it.” Research shows noise-induced hearing loss is common among construction workers. In fact, the average 25-year-old carpenter has the hearing capability of a 50-year-old person who worked in a quiet job, according to NIOSH. Addressing the problem remains a complicated issue: Tracking an individual’s hearing loss throughout his or her career is difficult in a mobile industry such as construction, and noise levels at a worksite may vary throughout the day.

Construction workers are exempt from OSHA’s general industry occupational noise standard, which requires employees exposed to an 8-hour time-weighted average equal to or exceeding 85 dBA to be covered by a hearing conservation program with exposure monitoring, audiometric testing, training, hearing protection, engineering controls and recordkeeping. For construction workers, OSHA mandates hearing conservation efforts when exposure exceeds 90 dBA, but the agency does not specify program components. NIOSH research shows 1 out of every 4 workers will become hearing impaired at exposures up to 90 dBA. The risk is 1 out of every 12 at the general industry level of 85 dBA.

Labor organizations have been pushing OSHA for years to enact stronger provisions for hearing conservation programs, while industry tends to oppose potentially costly and cumbersome new requirements. Multiple panelists at the “OSHA Listens” public hearing on March 4 urged the agency to focus on hearing protection; however, OSHA withdrew hearing conservation from its regulatory agenda in April.

OSHA action stalls

Learning that OSHA dropped hearing conservation from its agenda was disappointing for Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Washington-based Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America. “I hope that they get more resources so they can include that in a future regulatory agenda,” he said. “It needs to be done. A lot of people are exposed and a lot of people are losing their hearing.”

OSHA issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on hearing conservation in 2002 and hosted stakeholder meetings in 2004, but the topic has been stalled under “long-term actions” on the agency’s agenda for the past five years. During a webchat on the spring 2010 semiannual regulatory agenda, OSHA administrator David Michaels said the agency dropped hearing conservation and other items “where resource constraints prohibit us from moving aggressively forward in the near future.” He added, however, that OSHA recognized the serious health risks posed by noise exposure and would increase enforcement until resources allowed action on the standard.

At the “OSHA Listens” meeting, Rick Neitzel, research scientist in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, suggested OSHA model its standard after ANSI/ASSE A10.46-2007, which takes a task-based approach and requires protection for any exposure higher than 85 dBA. Neitzel, who also is immediate past president of the Westminster, CO-based National Hearing Conservation Association, recommended revising the permissible exposure limit and exchange rate used to determine a safe duration of exposure in the general industry standard. He also pointed out that the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to soon announce changes in the noise reduction rating system for hearing protectors.

The American Industrial Hygiene Association in Fairfax, VA, also has called for action. In a March 30 letter to Michaels, AIHA President Cathy L. Cole advised the agency to foster alliances among employers, trade groups and manufacturers to develop quieter tools and processes and consult with professional audiological groups and unions to develop methods for testing mobile workers.

Need for education

In 2004, OSHA hosted a meeting to hear from employers on how to reduce noise exposures and hearing loss among construction workers. According to a meeting summary report, stakeholders expressed concern that workers would resist wearing hearing protection devices and rebel against a new regulation. Workers would need to understand that wearing HPDs would not prevent them from hearing alarms and other warning signals. “Therefore, OSHA should consider using education and the empowerment of individual workers as the most promising approach to prevention of hearing loss,” the report said.

OSHA’s general industry standard requires hearing conservation programs to include audiometric testing – a series of hearing tests to detect changes in an individual’s ability to hear sound frequencies over time. But among contractors, “Audiometric testing is considered to be a primary stumbling block related to a regulatory approach to the hearing loss program overall” because many do not understand how testing will benefit them, according to the report.

Stakeholders also identified a larger cultural problem with the construction industry: Employers traditionally “have not exhibited a lot of care for workers; likewise, there is not a strong expectation for workers to care for themselves. Therefore, asking workers to care about themselves and to take care of themselves by wearing protective gear is asking for a cultural change,” the report concluded.

Advocates for hearing conservation programs agree education can play a pivotal role in increasing awareness. Boatman said that during the OSHA-funded training several years ago, workers ranging from apprentices to longtime tradesmen voiced concerns about the lack of education. “What I heard back from the group is usually the employers will hand out some sort of hearing protection or they’ll have that available at the jobsite, but unless you have that coupled with some effective training, it really doesn’t mean much,” she said.

Neitzel’s research demonstrates that point. He co-authored a study published in 2005 that found Washington state construction workers used hearing protection less than 25 percent of the time their measured exposure levels exceeded 85 dBA. Among trades, operating engineers encountered the most noise and reported the highest use of hearing protection devices – almost two-thirds of the time levels exceeded 85 and 90 dBA. By contrast, iron workers, who experienced the second highest exposure, used hearing protection less than 10 percent of the time noise topped 85 and 90 dBA.

“That tells me that we need to have a lot better education for these trades about how and why they should protect themselves, and that’s something that an OSHA regulation should mandate,” Neitzel said.

Holding construction to a general industry standard

Advocates for stronger conservation program requirements point to Washington state for proof that regulation can work. In Washington, construction and general industry are covered by the same noise standard, which requires employers to implement a hearing conservation program for employees whose exposure equals or exceeds 85 dBA.

Doug Stiffarm is safety director at Woodworth and Co., a general contractor in Tacoma, WA, that specializes in highway and street construction. Stiffarm said Woodworth offers employees several choices of hearing protection and arranges audiometric testing for all of its 200 employees. However, he added, regulators should be realistic with requirements to avoid an unfair economic burden on employers.

“If the state wants the employers to introduce more stringent engineering controls on bigger projects, then there should be some kind of control in place to pay for those,” such as figuring the cost into the bid process, Stiffarm said. Woodworth is a member of the Associated General Contractors of Washington, which helps members comply with the noise regulation. Mandi Kime, director of safety for AGC of Washington, said the organization offers discounts, loans out sound level meters and dosimeters, provides training, and is developing a video to teach employees how to help reduce noise.

She views the state regulation as a double-edged sword. “We don’t agree necessarily that audiometric testing is a prevention tool,” Kime said. “There’s also the dosimetry and the sound level monitoring – that’s very cumbersome for construction.” But according to David Johnson, industrial hygienist for the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, determining whether workers are losing their hearing is a primary way to evaluate the effectiveness of a program. “You want to discover that as soon as possible, and audiometric testing is a tool for that – to detect deficiencies in your program,” he said.

Stiffarm and Kime both said employers have no recourse when employees file workers’ compensation claims for hearing impairment resulting from non-work-related exposures. “On the claims sides it seems as though the balance is pretty unfair in that employers end up paying for not just the professional exposures but the personal exposures as well,” Kime said.

Low-cost solutions

When it comes to hazardous noise protection, an employer’s first instinct may be to purchase hearing protection with the highest noise reduction rating available. However, Neitzel cautioned against choosing a level of protection that blocks out too much noise, as that could interfere with a worker’s ability to communicate or hear the foreman or co-workers. For employers struggling to identify ways to address noise, Neitzel recommended several inexpensive controls:

  • Build an enclosure out of plywood to contain noise from compressors and generators.
  • Provide operating engineers with equipment that has an enclosed cab.
  • Make sure equipment has the appropriate mufflers and silencing equipment.
  • Schedule the loudest activities for when workers are on break or not onsite.

“In most cases, using a smaller piece of equipment is going to lower your noise levels quite a bit,” Neitzel said. He gave the example of using a shovel instead of an excavator to dig a hole. “A better maintained piece of equipment will almost always be a quieter piece of equipment as well,” he added.

Kime said simply moving a noisy object away from workers can sometimes significantly reduce their noise exposure. Hearing damage may not manifest right away, but experts say the consequences of hazardous noise exposure can be profound and permanent.

“Hearing loss is like cancer from smoking … it doesn’t happen [in] one day,” Johnson said. “The more you’re exposed to the loud noise, the more these hairs in the inner ear get damaged, and the individual might not perceive the hearing loss so … you need to be extremely careful.”

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