Protecting Workers From an Invisible Danger
Hearing protection in the workplace is critical in not only preserving workers’ hearing, but in protecting them from larger safety risks. How can companies prevent hearing loss?
- By Tim Turney
- Sep 06, 2023
Nearly 60 percent of former construction workers suffer from some form of hearing loss, research by the Center for Construction Research and Training has found. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is preventable, but the effect is permanent, resulting in life-changing injuries that can seriously impair a worker’s quality of life and place that at further risk within the workplace setting.
Employees with hearing loss, working in any industrial sector, are at risk of additional accidents or injuries if they struggle to hear critical alarms, moving vehicles, emergency broadcasts, or other hazards on site.
Despite having a duty of care to protect employees from workplace hazards that can cause injury or illness, employers have no obligation to test workers’ hearing in the construction sector, even if noise exposure levels exceed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL). For this reason, hearing loss is rarely recognized as an ‘occupational disease’ in construction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that hearing loss is underreported due to this fact, and as a result, hearing loss data for the construction sector is not comparable with data for general industry.
However, the repercussions to the employer if they do not seriously consider the auditory welfare of their workforce can be significant. The OSHA estimates that employers spend $242 million annually on workers’ compensation for hearing loss disability.
Despite the risk of irreversible damage to health, one-third of noise-exposed workers report not wearing hearing protection. Although hearing protection is a ‘first aid’ measure until it is possible to reduce noise exposure to a safer level through changes to the tools, equipment and schedules used, knowledge of its application can dramatically increase its effectiveness.
Identifying Workers Most at Risk
Any sound over 85 decibels(dB) can damage hearing, meaning the operation of concrete mixers, forklifts, jackhammers, nail guns and masonry drills all pose a permanent risk to worker health if effective control measures are not put in place. A noise survey can help employers determine which employees are at risk.
The survey should list employees and their exposure, then compare their exposure to the maximum PEL. In line with the OSHA regulations, hearing protection should be made available to employees exposed to noise dose levels above 85dB(A). The noise dose is based on the sound exposure level and duration, so for each increase 5 dB in noise levels, the duration of the exposure should be cut in half.
Noise monitoring provides accurate insights into the noise levels of a working environment so that businesses can identify at-risk employees and ensure they adhere to OSHA regulations. However, professionals undertaking the monitoring should be trained and prepared sufficiently with the right equipment as minor errors in noise level estimates can lead to major errors in exposure calculations.
Two pieces of equipment that can be used for the assessment are the sound level meter, primarily designed as a hand-held device used by an operator, and the noise dosimeter, which a staff member wears for their working shift. A sound level meter is an ideal solution for measuring the overall noise level of a task, piece of machinery, or area. On the other hand, dosimeters are best for personal noise measurements where it is difficult or unsafe to get close to employees with a sound-level meter because dosimeters are smaller and body-mounted. For example, a dosimeter would be ideal for truck drivers exposed to many different noise levels and irregular working patterns.
If an assessment establishes that noise levels pose a risk to workers, hearing protection should be supplied immediately while other more permanent solutions are implemented.
Building a Better Approach to Selecting Hearing Protection
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has published three methods for calculating the attenuation of hearing protectors, however, making sure people wear the protector for the entirety of their shift is essential to ensure real-world protection. Employers can take a proactive approach to encourage all-day wear by considering comfort, communication, the environment, the individual, and the relationship with other personal protective equipment (PPE).
Comfort and Fit
Removing PPE, even for short periods, has a significant effect on exposure. Therefore, it is crucial that hearing protection is comfortable to increase worker acceptance and support the likelihood of all-day wear. Employers should avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach to hearing protection because the shape and size of the ear canal varies from person to person. A protector that fits well for one employee may overprotect some workers or be uncomfortable for others. The OSHA recommends having a suitable selection of hearing protection available so that employees can make a choice that best supports their individual needs.
The interaction of hearing protection with other PPE is also a significant factor. For example, an employee wearing prescription or safety glasses will not obtain an adequate fit from a standard earmuff, so plugs or semi-inserts may be more suitable. In working environments where hard hats are worn regularly, a hard hat with built-in hearing defenders should be considered. New technology is even allowing ‘fit tests’ of hearing protection, giving confidence that the PPE is being worn correctly and the correct attenuation is attained.
Managing the Risk of ‘Over-Protecting’ Workers
Communication can be a major issue with PPE because the process of reducing sound, known as attenuation, can pose risks to worker health. If a protector with too little attenuation is used, then employees will not receive enough protection. However, too much noise reduction can create feelings of isolation, and an employee may need to remove their PPE to communicate.
In addition, over-attenuation can cut out safety warnings such as fire alarms or sirens from reversing vehicles, resulting in further risks to workers. As a rule of thumb, businesses can avoid over-protecting workers by ensuring the level of exposure is not reduced to a level below 75dB(A).
Considering the Individual and the Environment
A business’s unique working environment also impacts the best protector choice. For example, dusty conditions common on construction sites can cause hygiene problems. In dusty workplaces, it is crucial to keep the hands clean when inserting protective plugs to avoid ear infections. It is also advisable to consider the individual and ascertain any history of ear problems such as irritation or earache, as earmuffs that fit over the outer ear may be preferable to avoid medical complications.
Ensuring Employees Get the Critical Protection They Need
However, skill and knowledge of measuring noise can take years to build, so this guidance can only be considered a foundational introduction. If certain aspects of noise monitoring, protection and control are outside of an individual’s competencies, then external consultancies, training and support can be sought to bridge knowledge gaps and ensure employees get the critical protection they need.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.