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National Conference to Prevent Hearing Loss in Construction:

P R O C E E D I N G S

Address: Preventing Hearing Loss in the Construction Trades: A Best Practices Conference

TERENCE M. O’SULLIVAN
LIUNA GENERAL PRESIDENT

Alternate description

Before I make my comments, I, too, want to thank NIOSH and OSHA and Laborers' Health and Safety Fund for putting on this conference. We recognize George Miller who is the management co-chair of the Fund. We had an emergency meeting that came up this morning, and unfortunately Armand Sabitoni, who is the labor co-chair of the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund, could not be here, but certainly want to pass on our gratitude for his leadership and his efforts, along with George, and not only this conference, but on behalf of our Union, looking after the health and safety of our members day in and day out on all construction projects throughout North America.

There is a bunch of special people in this room. All of you are, but there is a group of retirees that we have, the Washington Laborers District Retiree Council, that is here today that I also want to recognize. Actually, when we talk about hearing conservation and the problems in the construction industry, the best group to talk to is probably sitting back there in the room. So we certainly appreciate you being here today as well.

It is a pleasure and honor to be here today, certainly to address this impressive audience of laborers, contractors, industry experts, and Government representatives, but also because I am proud to be president of the Union that is sponsoring this conference today, the Laborers' International Union of North America.

This conference is putting a much needed focus on one of the most serious and insidious problems within the construction issue, the problem of hearing loss due to excessive noise levels on the job.

Now, I am not expert on the subject, and I do not pretend to be. There is a lot about decibels and permissible exposure limits and audiometric testing that I do not understand, and probably never will, but I have worked construction and I have visited numerous construction projects. I have experienced the bone-shaking noise of incredibly loud machinery, and I have known laborers, lots of them over the years, who have suffered significant hearing loss that became a danger to them on the job and a burden to them in their daily lives.

I have known laborers who needed the TV blasting at home just to hear the news or a football game. I have known laborers who could no longer hear the words of their loved ones or the stories their kids wanted to tell them about school. More importantly, I have known laborers who no longer could hear a co-worker's warnings, laborers who no longer could hear a moving vehicle approaching, laborers who no longer could hear sirens warning of danger on a work site. What is most upsetting, what is most disturbing is that the hearing loss did not have to happen.

In many cases, in fact in most cases, it could have been prevented. That is why we have joined together today to learn what others have done, to look at what steps can be taken, to determine what we can do to help prevent this problem. The statistics tell the story, and it is not a pretty picture. The fact is most construction laborers lose some, if not all, of their hearing after 15 to 20 years in the industry. The fact is 1 in 7 construction workers is exposed each year to noise levels at or above the permissible limit for general industry. The fact that concerns me most is this. The highest percentage of such noise exposure is found in heavy highway construction, and in particular, concrete work, in jobs most often handled by the members we represent, the hard-working men and women who are laborers. That is why our Union in conjunction with the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America has joined with OSHA and NIOSH to sponsor this conference.

The problem of excessive noise in the workplace has long been with us. It is a fact of modern-day life, and no one in our industry expects construction sites to be quiet or noiseless, but we can and do expect construction workers' hearing to be better protected.

Our Union has long worked with our partner employers to protect the health and safety of all construction laborers, and I commend those contractors who are as committed as we are to solving this problem, but all of us, laborers, employers, OSHA, NIOSH, and other Federal and State agencies, we can all do better, and that is why we are here today.

In 1972, Congress passed the Noise Control Act, and a Noise Control Office was established under EPA. Nearly a decade later in 1983, that OSHA rule requires periodic noise surveys, annual hearing tests, worker training, and noise conservation hearing protection, but as most of you in this audience know, in the United States there are two sets of standards, one for general industry and one for the construction industry. The fact of that matter is that a higher level of noise, a full deafening 90 decibels, is allowed in the construction industry, the very industry where the greatest number of workers are exposed to the greatest levels of noise.

In the construction industry, there is no specific requirement for monitoring of noise, for audiometric testing, for hearing protection devices, for worker training and education, or for employee recordkeeping. In the construction industry, there is only a general requirement for, and I quote, "continuing effective hearing conservation programs," end quote. That insult to injury in the construction industry where the problem is at its worst, the enforcement of even these lenient regulations is less than rigorous.

Out of 18,000 Federal construction inspections in 1998, there were only 53 in which noise citations were issued. The Laborers' Health and Safety Fund has long worked with contractors to reduce noise on the job site, and we applaud the steps that our employers have taken because they have made a difference, but the problem is vast, the challenge is great, and others will need to follow their lead if we are to find a solution to a danger that threatens every construction laborer.

The facts paint a clear picture, the picture of a situation that we see as unfair, unwarranted, and intolerable. Ladies and gentlemen let me assure you of this. No one better understands the dangers of our industry than construction workers and the unions that represent them because no one suffers the consequences more directly or more personally than they do It is our health and our safety, our lives and limbs that are on the line. In the Laborers Union, the protection and safety of our members has long been one of our top priorities. It is why our Union joined with our partner employers 11 years ago to create the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America. This joint labor-management trust fund is devoted to job site safety and to the overall well-being of laborers and their families.

No less an important partnership is the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund, a partnership laborers have had with our signatory contractors for more than 30 years. This Fund provides laborers with both classroom and hands-on training in basic construction skills and advanced technologies in our industry, from nuclear remediation to asbestos removal, from trenchless technology to the removal of unexploded ordnance. Safety training, teaching workers how to avoid injury and illness on the job is central to this Fund's mission and to the mission we have as a labor union. That is why I believe this conference and its focus on a serious industry health problem that could be prevented and reduced is so vitally important.

In the Laborers Union, we believe that our members' quality of life is as important as the wages they earn and the benefits they receive. We believe that our mission to ensure a better life for laborers begins on the job site, but does not end there. We believe that every laborer has the right to return home at night as healthy as when he or she left for work that morning. For laborers on the job, hearing loss is much more than an inconvenience or a distraction. It can be, and often is, a matter of life and death.

Imagine you have worked construction for 20 years. Imagine you have been around deafening noise on your job day after day week after week, year after year. Imagine that sounds are no longer as clear and distinct as they once were, and imagine you are not even aware of it. You are getting older, and that is part of aging, isn't it?

Now, imagine you are on the job and you are working on a concrete pour, a job that commands skill, expertise, and your full attention. So you do not even hear the cement truck backing up, directly moving your way.

Construction accidents do happen, but many can be prevented, and one of the best ways to prevent them is to work together on the things that contribute to them, things like hearing loss. If that 20-year construction worker had been given ear protection years before or if he had been tested and was aware of his problem, a life might have been saved.

With the laborers, we know that construction noise is not an easy problem to solve, nor are there any simple answers, but our Union has never backed away from problems. We have learned that there are ways to find the answers. We have learned to join with our signatory contractors, with experts in the field, with Government and public health officials to tackle the tough issues.

Currently, the Laborers' Health & Safety Fund is reaching out to construction equipment manufacturers to find ways to reduce noise levels and to address the problem at its source. Today, at this conference, we have brought together renown experts from other countries to learn what they have tried. Today, at this conference, we are drawing upon the experience and expertise of specialists and leaders from our own country to continue the dialogue on what steps we can take to protect our workers and to advance our industry.

LIUNA has long been committed to finding the win-win solutions that work for everyone. With this commitment, with this audience of dedicated Union representatives, of committed contractors and of concerned professionals, I believe that the solutions we are seeking are well within our grasp.

Thank you for coming. Thank you for caring enough to make the construction industry a better, safer place to work, and for working to protect our Union's most valuable asset, our members. Thank you very much.

[Applause.]

MR. O'SULLIVAN:  Thank you. Thank you very much.

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