Hearing Protection is Always a Priority
Please hear this loud and clear: Hearing protection should always be a priority.
According to the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), construction workers are exposed to noise levels about the limit set by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) 73 percent of the time. As a result of these working conditions, more than half of all construction workers have experienced hearing loss.
This begins from day one on the job. According to Shari Smith, senior technical specialist at 3M, St. Paul, Minnesota, it’s common for construction workers to have the hearing of workers twice their age, meaning that a 30-year-old construction worker’s hearing is equivalent to that of a 60-year-old working in a non-noise exposed environment. This issue is compounded, Smith said, by the fact that many young people are joining the construction industry with some hearing loss already from the use of earbuds.
Most people may not even realize they’re losing their hearing until it’s too late, Smith said during a webinar about preventing hearing loss presented by 3M. Even with personal protective equipment, we must ensure workers (or safety directors) don’t get complacent about protecting workers’ hearing.
According to Smith, fit testing is an integral component of any hearing protection plan. Key factors to consider when selecting hearing protection devices are not limited to noise exposure and noise reduction rating (NRR); following best practices also requires attention to comfort, ease of use, fit, environment, compatibility with other personal protective equipment (PPE) and audibility.
“The most appropriate hearing protector is the one that best meets the workers’ needs when a multitude of factors are considered,” Smith said, “and ultimately the one that they will wear.”
“If it isn’t comfortable, people aren’t going to wear it,” Smith said. Hearing protection also needs to be easy to use. Although roll-down earplugs are common and easy to use, they may not be suitable for a construction site where workers’ hands are often dirty and/or they are wearing gloves. “They may not want to handle those earplugs with dirty hands, or take off their gloves to do so, so you have to think about choosing a plug that’s better-suited to the construction job site.”
According to Smith’s research, 70 percent of people are able to properly insert earplugs on the first attempt. The remainder either need additional training or require other styles of ear protection. For example, 11 percent of people have what she calls “an earplug-ear canal mismatch.” This means that no matter how much they try or how much you train them, earplugs may not work for them. “Some peoples’ ear canal is shaped so differently, they really need earmuffs. It’s important to identify them so you can supply them with hearing protection that works for them.”
How much protection workers are getting is also important. According to Smith, if employees are equipped with hearing protection such that they are only experiencing 90 dB, 17 to 25 percent of people will still experience hearing loss. If employees are equipped such that they only experience 85 dB, between 6 and 8 percent of people will still experience hearing loss. That number drops to less than 1 percent if you protect employees such that they only experience 80 dB.
However, Smith warns against overprotecting due to its impact on auditory situational awareness. She recommends aiming to reduce noise levels to 70 or 80 dB.
Smith reminds us that employees who do not wear hearing protection throughout the whole shift are not getting the level of protection claimed on the box. For example, if an employee is taking his or her earplugs out to have a 15-minute conversation four times throughout their shift, that’s an entire hour of exposure that you need to account for.
A solution to these problems may be found in advanced hearing protection and communication solutions.
“Environmental listening devices are helpful when moving between quiet and loud areas or when working near moving vehicles,” Smith said. These devices amplify sound when things are quiet and clip loud sounds down to 82 dB. “This allows you to have a better idea of what’s happening around you. The protection automatically adjusts as noise levels change.”
Protective communication takes hearing protection one step further by allowing crews to better understand one another on the job. AsphaltPro has covered these devices before, such as their use by the team at The Earle Companies in Farmingdale, New Jersey.
“These devices may be particularly helpful during the current COVID-19 environment, where we can’t get as close to one another as we might normally need to have clear communication,” Smith said. They work by amplifying the signal (what you want to hear) above the noise (the background sounds). “They are also useful in environments where it’s critical to hear warning signals from machinery.”
Smith spent 20 years of her career helping to reduce struck-by accidents, mostly through the use of highly visible PPE clothing. “Now, we have another technology in the toolkit to reduce struck-by accidents,” she said. The majority of struck-bys, she added, occur by vehicles within the job site rather than the traveling public. “Imagine if the spotter and driver could talk to one another? That’s something to think about. Beyond protecting our hearing, these devices can also be a way to reduce accidents.”