On March 5, after more than three years of sharp consensus-building debate, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) adopted an innovative voluntary standard to guide Hearing Loss Prevention in Construction and Demolition Workers (ANSI A10.46).
“Noise exposure is one of the most widespread health hazards in construction.” says Armand E. Sabitoni, LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and the LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman. “The industry is unprotected because the OSHA standard adopted in 1971 – which requires testing to determine if and when workers are overexposed to noise – doesn’t work well in construction due to the changing nature of construction worksites. The task-based approach adopted in the new ANSI standard solves this problem. As safety conscious contractors accept this approach, the precious gift of hearing for Laborers and other construction workers will finally gain protection.”
Under the current OSHA standard, testing determines when workers are overexposed to noise. In industrial worksites – an auto plant, for instance, where noise is constant from day to day – a simple test establishes whether an employer must provide a hearing conservation program.
In contrast, construction noise varies tremendously from day to day as the project moves through different stages and requires different equipment. Due to these changes, constant testing is necessary to assess noise levels, yet, by the time a test is evaluated and action is taken, the exposure has occurred and the site may have new equipment coming in for the next stage. Thus, the OSHA standard has never worked well to protect construction workers, a problem that was codified by the 1983 decision to exempt construction from OSHA’s general requirement of comprehensive hearing conservation programs in all noisy workplaces.
Under this new, task-based approach testing may not be necessary. If historic knowledge, equipment specifications (see sidebar) and common sense gauges (do I have to yell for you to hear me when you’re three feet away?) indicate that the danger threshold can be exceeded, the ANSI standard says a hearing conservation program should be provided. If there is conflicting opinion or uncertainty, testing can resolve the issue.
Hearing is sensitive and easily damaged. Sound stimulates tiny hair-like cells in the inner ear. These vibrate and send auditory messages to the brain, but when noise levels are too loud for too long, cells can be damaged. When the cells no longer send signals to the brain, hearing is lost. Damage usually occurs slowly over a number of years and may go unobserved until it is too late. However, though cochlear implants show some promise, at this time, no means exist to restore hearing once it is lost.
To minimize this risk, the new ANSI standard applies to all construction and demolition workers with potential noise exposures of 85 dBA and above.
The new standard also defines the key aspects of an effective hearing conservation program in construction. It should include the following components:
- Assessments to determine potential exposure
- Engineering and administrative controls to reduce exposure
- Hearing protection when controls are infeasible
- Proper training to prevent hearing loss
- Audiometric evaluations to detect hearing changes
Engineering and administrative controls are preferred over personal protective equipment (earplugs or ear muffs) because they separate the workforce from the actual danger. For instance, new equipment, designed for quieter performance, can replace old, noisy machines or workers can be prevented from entering noisy areas.
When expected noise levels require a hearing conservation program, workers must be trained to understand the hazard, particularly its insidious nature – the way permanent hearing loss develops so slowly that it cannot be noticed until it is too late. They must be trained in the use of hearing protection, and audiometric evaluations are necessary so that workers can track their own loss and become active in preventing hearing loss.
The American National Standards Institute or ANSI, is a private, nonprofit organization that oversees the development of voluntary, consensus standards for products, services, processes, systems and personnel in the United States. The organization coordinates U.S. standards with international standards, so that American products can be used worldwide (for example, standards make sure that people who own cameras can find the film they need anywhere around the world). The organization also adopts safety standards. Though the standards are voluntary, because they are adopted through an extensive process designed to build consensus, they generally become accepted practice in applicable situations.
The hearing conservation standard evolved through a particularly arduous process. Nearly adopted in December, 2005 (see Compromise Gains Ground for Voluntary Noise Standard) when it secured the required two-thirds majority vote, it was nevertheless sent back for another year’s review after one contractor association appealed the decision. Subsequently, negotiations and minor changes resolved the appeal.
Copies of the new standard may be purchased online through the ANSI Standards Store. In addition, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), which serves as secretariat for the A10 Accredited Standards Committee of ANSI, is presenting a “webinar” on the new standard on May 2. Participants in that event – which will feature the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider – will receive a free copy of the standard as part of their participation fee. More information on the webinar is available at the ASSE website.
The LHSFNA has long made hearing conservation a major focus of its occupational safety and health work. In 2001, it sponsored the first ever national conference on the issue and established the Construction Noise Control Partnership. The Fund’s website contains an extensive array of hearing conservation resources.
The Fund also publishes:
A Laborer’s Guide to Prevent Hearing Loss in Construction (29-page pamphlet)
Noise and Your Job (10-page pamphlet)
Hearing Conservation for Construction Workers (37-page manual)
Bill Duke Discusses Hearing Loss Among Laborers (38-minute video)
Use These (poster)
All publications are available through the Fund’s online catalogue.