Tricks of the Trade
How to prevent hearing loss in the workplace
by Frank Hohman
From generators and power tools running to heavy equipment beeping and jack hammers drilling, construction sites are noisy places. Even though many trade professionals might be used to working in these loud conditions, some might not be aware of the health risks associated with long-term noise exposure. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, exposure to noise measured at 85 decibels or higher for an average of eight hours a day is considered to be a hearing hazard. Noise at this level is known to cause tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears that interferes with one's hearing, and permanent hearing loss. Learn about hearing safety best practices and see how you can prevent hearing loss in the construction industry.
Top 5 hearing safety tips for trade professionals
Opt for quiet tools and equipment. Over the years, manufacturers have worked to improve the safety of tools and equipment. As such, many manufacturers now offer quiet-operating or noise-reduced products that operate at a lower decibel level than earlier models. When purchasing new tools or equipment for a project, check to see if a quiet-operating model is available.
Isolate sources of noise. When possible, try to operate noisy equipment in designated areas that are surrounded by a barrier. Consider insulating these areas with foam crate padding or another soft material that will buffer sound. If it’s not possible to work in a designated sound-proof area, another option is to work outdoors. By working outside, noise will be reduced by eliminating sound echoing in a building.
Tailor safety precautions to the job. Different types of work require different types of tools and equipment to be used. As your projects change, so should the steps you take to protect your hearing.
Pro tip: A simple way to gauge if noise is getting too loud is to try to talk to someone standing three feet away. If you have to raise your voice for them to hear you, then that’s an indicator that the ambient noise in an area is likely above safe levels.
Double up on hearing safety equipment. When noise exceeds 90 decibels over an eight hour period, OSHA requires the use of ear plugs and ear muffs to be used in combination in order to maximize hearing protection. Check the manufacturers’ noise reduction rating of both devices to find the right combination for the job.
Regularly inspect your hearing protection devices. Over time, wear and tear of hearing safety products can reduce their efficacy. Inspect your ear muffs to ensure they fit securely around the ears, and check ear plugs for signs of disrepair.
How loud is it? A visual aid for understanding decibel levels
A fundamental part of protecting your hearing is recognizing when sound levels are too high. As mentioned above, exposure to noise that measures above 85 decibels over an eight hour average period can damage your hearing. While a noise dosimeter is a device that can give you a precise decibel level measurement, you might not have one readily available on the job. Use the chart below to help you gauge when noise levels are too high.*
By understanding when noise levels present a hearing hazard, you will be able to take action to prevent damage to your ears. OSHA outlines specific standards for hearing safety in the construction industry. Follow the best practices outlined above to help you meet the OSHA standards.
Construction industry hearing loss statistics
Whether you’re a plumber, HVAC contractor, mechanical contractor or a builder, if you’re on a construction site, you need to be aware of the risks of noise exposure. The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, recognizes hearing loss as the third most common chronic physical condition in adults in the United States. For workers in the construction industry, the CDC also reports that:
- About 44% of all construction industry workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels
- 25% of workers tested for hearing loss were shown to have a hearing impairment
- 31% of noise-exposed workers report not wearing hearing protection
In addition to these statistics, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, also cites that about $242 million is spent on hearing loss disability every year. Fortunately, you can avoid becoming a statistic by taking the safety precautions outlined above when working on a noisy construction site.
Ferguson supports trades through our offering of safety products and resources for industry professionals. Browse hearing safety products online, and explore Safety Matters for other useful information to protect your crew and yourself on the job.
*Noise levels may vary. Check manufacturer specifications to determine the decibel level when operating a specific piece of equipment.