Hearing loss: A common and preventable worker disability

Damage to hearing can affect workers’ safety, balance and communication
Hearing loss affects worker safety and quality of life.

Hearing loss can have a profound impact on construction workers’ safety at work, as well as their quality of life. Damage to workers’ hearing makes it harder for them to hear warnings on job sites, but it can also impact their sense of balance, according to the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR). Difficulty communicating can impact their social interactions, and exposure to excessive noise can also increase stress and blood pressure.

“Being able to hear what’s going on around you has a direct impact on your safety and your life,” according to Gary Gustafson, director of the environmental hazards training program at CPWR, said during a webinar on April 26.

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Hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the United States, Gustafson noted. Construction workers are especially at risk of hearing damage and loss, with as many as half of workers having some job-related loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

NIOSH has found that a 25-year-old construction worker has similar hearing abilities as a 50-year-old in another industry.

“Too often, we as construction workers think that too much noise is just part of the job and nothing can be done about it,” Gustafson said.

Between 2015 and 2017, CPWR surveyed over 200 union trainers and 4,000 trainees on various hearing safety measures. The survey findings shaped CPWR’s hearing loss prevention training program.

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One-quarter of respondents said they often have to shout in order to be heard on a job site, according to the survey. More than half said they never wear hearing protection or only wear it sometimes.

CPWR found that more training was needed around how to recognize noise hazards, how to select the right kind of protection, and risks and signs of hearing loss.

Trainers said one of the biggest challenges is convincing workers that there is a hazard.

“Since hearing loss happens over time, we heard from both workers, particularly older workers, and trainers that it’s hard to convince a young worker that they’re at risk” of losing or damaging their hearing, Eileen Betit, director of research to practice for CPWR, said on the webinar.

Even when workers are exposed to training, Betit said it’s difficult to get workers to continue to follow safety protocols months after they’ve completed the training.

Hearing loss can’t be reversed, but Gustafson said, “The good news is that noise-induced hearing loss is preventable.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s limit for permissible noise levels in an eight-hour workday is 90 decibels. NIOSH recommends noise levels should not exceed 85 decibels without hearing protection.

“The amount of damage done by noise depends mainly on how loud the noise is, and how long you’ve been exposed to it,” Gustafson said. “The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes for damage-induced hearing loss to happen.”

If workers have to shout to be heard by someone a few feet away, if they have to turn equipment off or move to a different location to be heard, or if they have to turn up the radio when they get back in their car, noise levels at work are at hazardous levels, according to Gustafson.

Personal and in-ear noise dosimeters measure the noise level an individual is exposed to, and noise level monitors are available for smartphones.

Betit noted that research from NIOSH has found the sound meters for iPhones have been more reliable than those built for Androids.

Gustafson warned that it’s not clear whether OSHA would accept sound levels measured by these smartphone devices, so they may just be a tool for builders to judge how their safety measures are working.

[Check out these other Safety Week articles from Colorado Builder.]

Danielle Andrus

Danielle Andrus is the managing editor of Colorado Builder. She can be reached at [email protected].

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