Construction sites are loud. And yet often, they can be relatively quiet. Sounds and situations can change very quickly, and rarely are construction workers exposed to the same noise levels for the same amount of time from one day to the next.
Furthermore, construction sites tend to be very busy places with large vehicles moving back and forth and equipment moving up and down. Workers must remain alert to their surroundings while also maintaining the ability to communicate with their coworkers.
It can be challenging to find a hearing protection device (HPD) that will both help protect workers from hazardous noise while still allowing them to hear the critical sounds needed to perform their job safely and productively. Let’s explore the auditory hazards, hearing protection, and some innovative solutions that are available.
Why Construction Workers Should Wear Appropriate Hearing Protection
A longitudinal study found that 73% of construction workers were exposed to noise levels above the NIOSH recommended exposure limit.[i] With repeated exposure to hazardous noise, workers are at an increased risk of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Remember, hearing loss can be permanent and can have a significant impact on a worker’s quality of life, both on and off the job.[ii]
How does this happen? As the American Industrial Hygiene Association points out, “Most construction tools and activities create noise levels well over 85 decibels…. [This can include] highway and road construction; carpentry; power tool operations; pneumatic tool operation; heavy equipment operations; saws, drill and grinder operation; work near generators; sheet metal work; iron work; welding; operating engineer work; landscaping; residential construction; and sand or abrasive blasting…”
“Several [of these tools] can generate very high sound levels (130 to 140 decibels) that can cause damage to the ear instantaneously. Still, noise hazards tend to be overlooked on construction worksites: They are more often considered an annoyance or an obstacle to communication than an important health hazard. Noise-induced hearing loss is among the most common work-related illnesses in the United States. Each year approximately 30 million U.S. workers are exposed to noise loud enough to damage their hearing.”[iii]
Protection Versus Overprotection
Construction sites transition from extreme levels of noise to relative quiet, very quickly and quite often. Due to the extreme noise levels, safety managers commonly provide conventional passive earplugs and earmuffs with a high noise reduction rating (NRR) for their workers. While these hearing protectors can be an effective way to reduce exposure to hazardous noise, they provide the same amount of noise reduction regardless of the environmental sound level. So, when the noise quiets down, workers may have more noise reduction than necessary, which may lead to overprotection.
Overprotection occurs when HPDs reduce sounds well below what is considered to be hazardous and limits the wearer’s ability to detect sounds or understanding speech critical to performing the job safely. This can reduce worker productivity, or even worse, create other safety risks. If workers are not able to clearly hear the important sounds associated with their job, an unintended consequence may be that they are tempted to intentionally poorly fit their hearing protectors or remove them altogether. Wearing HPDs improperly or inconsistently, even for a short period of time, can be hazardous and could lead to a higher risk of permanent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
Moreover, hearing-impaired workers may be at a particular disadvantage when using high NRR, passive hearing protection because the added attenuation may further reduce their ability to detect sounds and understand speech. It is critical for people with hearing loss to protect their remaining hearing while also balancing their need to be connected to their environment. According to U.S. OSHA, “Hearing-impaired workers face many challenges in the workplace, including communication, identifying and using suitable hearing protection, and the use of hearing aids at work. Industrial hearing conservation programs may not fully address the specific needs of hearing-impaired workers for hearing protection and communication.”[iv]
Try Advanced Hearing Protection Solutions: Protection + Audibility
There are advanced hearing protection devices can help protect workers’ hearing while enabling them to communicate and/or hear their surroundings. Consider two categories of advanced HPDs: protective hearing solutions and protective communication solutions.
Protective hearing solutions are HPDs that feature environmental listening capability. When powered on, these advanced HPD products allow sounds to pass through when it is quiet but help provide protection when it is loud.
These solutions are beneficial when workers are exposed to intermittent noise or when they move between loud and quiet areas, as the attenuation will automatically adjust with the noise level. This type of hearing protection can also be particularly advantageous for people with hearing impairments because not only do they help provide protection against noise, they may make it easier to hear the critical sounds in the environment.
When it is noisy, the environmental listening technology in this type of protective hearing solution compresses and limits sounds that come through the ambient microphones to 82 dBA. For example, if a worker is in an area where the sound is 90 dBA, the protective hearing solution will compress the noise to 82 dBA, thus providing 8 decibels of noise reduction (when appropriately fit and used).
In moderate levels of noise, the protective hearing solution helps minimize overprotection because the amount of attenuation provided to the worker is relative to the noise level. If the noise raises to an extreme level or the protective hearing solution is powered off, it will simply function as a passive hearing protector. When powered on, protective hearing solutions provide a self-adjusting amount of protection and only when it’s needed. It is smart hearing protection that automatically adjusts, up to the labeled NRR, based on the noise level.
Protective communication solutions are advanced HPDs that feature integrated two-way radios and/or wireless technology, along with noise-canceling speech microphones, and enable workers to communicate in high noise environments. And with the voice-operated transmission, workers can communicate hands-free so they can remain productive while communicating.
These advanced HPDs are smart hearing protectors that can not only help protect workers’ hearing but may also improve the workers’ ability to communicate in noise and/or hear the important sounds needed to do their job safely and productively. Ultimately, if workers are provided hearing protectors with an amount of noise reduction appropriate for their environment while also helping them communicate with their colleagues, they may be even more motivated to wear their HPDs continually and consistently, which can hopefully help to reduce the incidence of NIHL in the construction industry.
[i] The Construction Chart Book, pg. 33, Chart 33f CPWR. http://www.cpwr.com/sites/default/files/publications/CB%20page%2033.pdf
[ii] Elizabeth A. Masterson, PhD1; P. Timothy Bushnell, PhD2; Christa L. Themann, MA3; Thais C. Morata, PhD, Hearing Impairment Among Noise-Exposed Workers — United States, 2003–2012, CDC Weekly / April 22, 2016 / 65(15);389–394 – https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6515a2.htm?s_cid=mm6515a2_e