By: Thomas H. Welby Published: May 2017

Noise: an Underestimated Construction Safety Hazard

Anyone who works on (or near) construction sites is aware that such environments are noisy.  However, unless most of your employees are spending most of their days operating jackhammers, chances are good that noise is a subject that receives less attention in your company’s safety program than it deserves.

While hearing loss can result from a one-time incident, more commonly it occurs over time, from the cumulative effects of exposure from day to day to excessive noise levels.  The gradual nature of most job-related hearing loss often causes it to go undetected, until its impact is significant.

While some degree of hearing loss is an ordinary incident of getting older, if pronounced, it can be isolating, and have a significant negative impact, both on one’s quality of life generally, and one’s ability to hold many kinds of employment in particular.  While damage to hearing is usually less dramatic than an employee falling off a roof or driving a piece of equipment into a retaining pond, it has some potential to be life-threatening, as studies have shown that workers consistently exposed to excessive occupational noise may be at significantly higher risk of serious heart disease than workers not exposed.  Even if damage to hearing is not so dramatic as to impact an employee’s ability to enjoy ordinary conversation or other everyday activities, or to cause heart disease, it can affect productivity, and contribute to workplace accidents.

Since noise-induced hearing loss is incurable and irreversible, the primary strategy must be prevention.  Indeed, you really should be rolling up your sleeves on this one, because (1) mitigating this hazard is practicable; (2) doing so costs relatively little, in terms of cash outlays and lost productivity; and (3) what is required by OSHA is probably less than optimal.

Prevention begins with identifying tasks likely to generate high noise levels — including not only those to be performed by your own employees, but by other trades in proximity to where your employees will be working.

It is important for the general contractor and all trades to communicate, and plan ahead, for construction phases or specific tasks that will produce high noise levels.  A regular agenda item at daily and weekly safety meetings should be a discussion of current and upcoming tasks which, in combination with other jobsite activities, are likely to produce ambient noise at levels exceeding prescribed levels.

Safety meetings should also be the occasion of discussing practical means to reduce noise levels, and restrict workers’ time of exposure.  Often, high-noise tasks can be staggered, rather than performed simultaneously or continuously.  Sometimes, tasks can be relocated, and performed at greater distances from where most employees are working.  High -noise equipment, such as compressors and generators, can often be moved at some distance away from active or highly-populated work zones.

  Prefabricated noise barriers are another commonly-employed means of attenuating noise.  Where a quieter item of equipment (such as a smaller generator) will get the job done, avoid using a larger, noisier, item of equipment.  Reducing time exposure to high noise levels is also useful, as is implementing rest breaks away from noise, and limiting access to unavoidably noisy work zones to employees whose tasks require them to be there.

Another good idea is that, as a matter of policy and consistent practice, your purchasing department should obtain information concerning noise levels produced by equipment to be bought or leased by your firm, and making quiet, or relatively quiet, operation a major consideration in selecting equipment.  Many manufacturers have designed noise-reduction into their products, or their equipment can be retrofitted or used with parts (e.g., noise-reducing blades on power saws) at modest incremental cost.

As always, while the rank-and-file should certainly speak up on this issue, it’s important for leadership to come largely “from the top.”  Company management and supervisory personnel should take noise attenuation and hearing protection seriously, and engage in a continuous process of hazard identification and assessment, and (in collaboration with other trades, union representatives, etc.) devising means to reduce the hazards represented by jobsite noise.

Noise levels are measured in decibels (dBA), but — since, as most people are unaware, decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale — an increase of only a few decibels means that, by way of example, an increase from 90 decibels to 93 decibels indicates that the noise volume has not increased by one-thirtieth, but has doubled.  While other factors come into play (such as proximity to the noise-producing condition, and the effectiveness of barriers, if any, deployed) all things being equal, time of exposure to noise levels at 93 decibels should be cut in half, versus a situation where noise levels are at 90 decibels.

As a rough indicator, these are a few sample items from an OSHA “Sound Level Chart:

  • Normal conversation:  60 dBA;
  • Schoolchildren in noisy cafeteria:  90 dBA;
  • OSHA recommended maximum noise level:  85 dBA;
  • Power lawn mower:  90 dBA;
  • Forklift:  93 dBA;
  • Concrete saw:  98 dBA;
  • Wood shop:  100 dBA;
  • Snowmobile:  120 dBA;
  • Gunshot:  140 dBA.

Measured by construction activity, forming, installing rebar, framing and masonry work (among others) are particularly noisy tasks. Under OSHA, employers are allowed to rely on any combination of hearing-protective devices, coupled with a hearing conservation program, i.e., engineering and administrative controls.

Hearing-protective devices are recommended, but not mandated, at any time that time-site exposures (8-hour average) meets or exceeds 85 dBA.  The employer is responsible for selecting, fitting, and maintaining hearing-protective devices.  The employer must also provide them to employees at no cost, and to train employees in their use.

Our view is that practically all construction projects involve unsafe noise levels, and that high-quality hearing-protective devices should be provided as a matter of course.  While high noise activities are less likely to be continuous, or concurrent, on residential or other smaller jobs, your average chain saw is rated at about 110 dBA, a bulldozer at 100 dBA, and a nail gun at 97 dBA. 

OSHA does prescribe training, not only in the use of hearing-protective equipment, but in how hearing damage happens.  Frankly, instructing your employees in the anatomy of the ear, or how the cilia are damaged over time, is less important than that they understand that (1) hearing loss occurs gradually; (2) is seldom apparent until significant damage has already occurred; (3) is more disabling than commonly believed; (4) cannot be cured or reversed; but (5) can be prevented, in large part by the conscientious use of hearing-protective equipment.

To counter employee resistance to the use of hearing-protective equipment, workers need to be made aware not only of the severity and permanence of job-related hearing loss, but also that today’s hearing-protective equipment is better-designed than in the past, and allows face-to-face conversations, while blocking out dangerous levels of background noise.

While a significant hearing loss, becoming apparent only years after the worker in question has left your company for other employment, may not appear as critical as avoiding fatalities, construction-related hearing loss is a widespread, and by no means trivial, health issue.  Stressing its dangers, implementing engineering and administrative controls, and exceeding current OSHA requirements (notably, by providing hearing-protective equipment, and ensuring that it is both maintained and used) not only protects the health of your workers, but sends a powerful signal that your company’s safety objectives go beyond avoiding OSHA citations.

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