Four Steps to Prevent Hearing Loss in Construction

Workplace noise is not just a health hazard; it can be a safety hazard, if noise hinders communication or prevents workers from hearing a piece of machinery moving toward them. (photo courtesy Getty Images)

Noise might not seem as dangerous as other hazards present on construction and demolition sites, but it can have a tremendous impact on worker safety and health. Here are steps you can take to mitigate this risk.

By Scott Fowler, ASSP Content Specialist

Jackhammers drilling into the ground; saws cutting lumber; dump trucks and bulldozers moving materials—these are just a few examples of the noises construction workers encounter as they do their jobs each day. While noise may not seem as dangerous as other hazards present on construction and demolition sites, it can have a tremendous impact on worker safety and health.

The average construction site has a noise level of between 80-90 decibels (dB). CDC reports that approximately 51% of construction workers have been exposed to hazardous noise and 31% of those workers report not wearing hearing protection. Furthermore, approximately 14% of all construction workers have hearing difficulty.

How can you know if your job site is too loud? What steps can you take to protect workers’ hearing? Here are four steps you can follow.

KNOW THE LIMITS

The first step of protecting workers’ hearing is understanding the level at which workplace noise can be hazardous. ANSI/ASSP A10.46, Hearing Loss Prevention for Construction and Demolition Workers  establishes an acceptable noise level of 85dB over an 8-hour day, with a 3-dB doubling rate. As defined by NIOSH, a 3-dB doubling rate means that for every 3-dB increase in noise level, the allowable exposure time is reduced by half and, conversely, a 3-dB decrease in noise level doubles the allowable exposure time.

Technology has made it possible for employers and safety professionals to determine the noise levels of their job sites. Sound level meters can be downloaded onto a smartphone that can be used to accurately identify noisy tasks.

Another useful tool is Appendix 2 of the A10.46 standard, which provides probable noise levels of common construction tools and equipment, such as air hammers, electric grinders, nail guns and circular saws. Using this appendix as a guide, you can determine what noise levels could be at different areas of the job site and take appropriate measures to protect workers’ hearing.

ESTABLISH A SAFE DISTANCE

Once you determine the noise levels throughout your site, you can institute engineering controls to minimize the hazardous noise. Engineering controls could include retrofits or mufflers for older equipment, or siting equipment away from workers. Some pieces of noisy equipment, such as an air compressor, can be sited 10-15ft away from where work is being performed. You can also rotate workers between noisier tasks and quieter tasks to minimize their risk.

Along with minimizing noise levels, engineering controls can also help you evaluate your noise-reduction program. Using a sound level meter, you can see if you are effectively reducing or controlling noise levels.

USE THE LATEST TOOLS

Once engineering controls are in place, use PPE to provide an extra barrier between workers and hazardous noise. Advances in hearing technology have made it possible for workers to protect their hearing, while still being able to communicate with coworkers and help them be more aware of the activity on the job site.

For example, electronic earmuffs contain a microphone that monitors noise levels and will reduce the noise level inside the earmuff to 85dB or below, thereby allowing for easier communication between workers—and encouraging consistent use of the earmuffs.

TEACH YOUR WORKERS

In addition to reminding workers how to properly wear hearing protection, you should also explain why workers need to wear it consistently and the potential long-term health impacts of not wearing hearing protection. Scheduling regular hearing tests for workers is an important preventative step, as well.

Workers also need to recognize that workplace noise is not just a health hazard. It can be a safety hazard, if noise hinders communication or prevents them from hearing a piece of machinery moving toward them. It is in everyone’s best interests to have administrative and engineering controls in place, and to properly wear hearing protection to reduce exposure to hazardous noise.

Since hearing loss occurs gradually and can have a dramatic effect on one’s quality of life, it’s best to take preventative measures to avoid hearing loss from occurring in the first place.  WMHS