Jackhammers drilling into the ground, saws cutting lumber, dump trucks and bulldozers moving materials. These are just a few examples of the noises that 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.
“Noise is one of those hazards that’s often ignored in construction because hearing loss is generally gradual and the danger is not immediately obvious,” says Scott Schneider of the ANSI/ASSP A10.46 Subcommittee. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t important.”
The average construction site has a noise level of between 80 and 90 decibels (dB). CDC reports that approximately 51 percent of construction workers have been exposed to hazardous noise and 31 percent of those workers report not wearing hearing protection. Furthermore, approximately 14 percent of all construction workers have hearing difficulty.
With this in mind, how can you know if your job site is too loud? What steps you can take to protect workers’ hearing? Here are a few things to remember.
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 85 decibels over an eight-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.
Modern technology has made it possible for employers and safety professionals to determine the noise levels of their job sites. Schneider notes that people can download sound level meters to their smartphones that can be used to easily and 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’ve determined the noise levels throughout your site, you can institute controls to minimize the hazardous noise. Schneider encourages any efforts to begin with engineering controls to create an overall quieter working environment.
“If we can provide a quieter work environment, that’s better for everybody,” he says. “It means that you’re protecting workers from hearing loss, and it’s easier to communicate on the job site to protect workers from safety hazards.”
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-to-15 feet 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.
“If you’re using engineering controls, you can easily use a sound level meter or an app on your phone to see how loud noise levels are and if you’re effectively reducing them,” says Schneider.
Use the Latest Tools
Once engineering controls are in place, you can use PPE to provide an extra barrier between workers and hazardous noise. Technological 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.
“Hearing protection has improved significantly in the last couple years and there are many new models of hearing protection that make it easier for workers to communicate while wearing them,” Schneider explains. “Supervisors should be checking as they walk around the site ensure that workers are wearing hearing protection when needed.”
For example, electronic earmuffs contain a microphone that monitors noise levels and will reduce the noise level inside the earmuff to 85 dB or below, thereby allowing for easier communication between workers and encouraging consistent use of the earmuffs.
“Even if noise levels are below the level that is going to cause hearing loss, excessive noise can also cause stress and other physiological responses,” he says. “Consistent use of hearing protection when you’re exposed to high levels of noise is the best predictor of protecting your hearing,”
Teach Your Workers
Schneider emphasizes that 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.
“The most important aspect of training is for workers to understand that hearing loss occurs gradually, and they may not recognize it right away,” Schneider explains. “It’s important for workers to get their hearing tested regularly to monitor for hearing loss. That helps motivate people to be more vigilant about protecting their hearing moving forward.”
Workers also need to recognize that workplace noise isn’t just a health hazard. It can also 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 interest to have administrative and engineering controls in place, and properly wear hearing protection to reduce their exposure to hazardous noise.
“Hearing loss can have a dramatic effect on your quality of life,” Schneider says. “Yes, people can get hearing aids that amplify the sound, but that’s a poor solution since it doesn’t always help with the intelligibility of sound. It’s better to protect your hearing from loss in the first place.”
Listen to our podcast with Scott Schneider of the A10.46 Subcommittee to learn more about how to prevent hearing loss in construction and demolition.
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