With complaints continually falling on deaf ears at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), hearing conservation advocates – including LIUNA, its signatory contractors and the LHSFNA – have sought other avenues to advance the cause. And, this year, significant progress is evident.

Adopted in 1971, OSHA’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) on noise – the eight-hour, time-weighted average (TWA) of 90 decibels (dB) – is completely outdated. The rest of the world has moved down to 85 dB which is about ten times lower (sound is measured on a log rhythmic scale). In Canada, after several years of study and hearings, the Ontario government, on July 1, 2007, became the latest to lower its threshold to 85 dB.

Alternate description

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

In construction, the TWA changes daily. “Construction noise,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck, “is variable. First of all, no construction site is permanent, and each site is unique. Sometimes, noise is loud and steady, as in an interstate highway work zone. Other times, it occurs in intense, sudden bursts, as with pile driving for a new stadium. And most projects go through several major phases, each with different kinds and levels of sound.”

Because OSHA’s TWA never worked in construction, the industry has never had an effective approach to hearing conservation. That all began to change this spring with the publication of the American National Standards Institute’s new, task-based standard, adopted after years of consensus-building in the ANSI A10.46 committee. Under the new standard, whenever a construction task involves equipment or produces noise that typically exceeds 85 dB, a hearing conservation program should be implemented.

This task-based approach eliminates the need for constant measuring, yet ensures that workers will be protected against hearing loss, a serious problem among construction workers in general and Laborers in particular. A variety of hearing tests conducted over the years among LIUNA members and retirees has shown that construction noise has taken a serious toll. With the new standard, contractors must first attempt to reduce exposure through engineering and administrative controls, then resort to personal protective equipment if those methods prove infeasible or inadequate.

Engineering controls are also a big part of a new noise ordinance enacted earlier this year in New York City. In the concentrated confines of the city, noise – whether from construction or other sources – is a broad-based social concern. Responding to popular pressure, city officials adopted a new noise control ordinance that requires all construction projects to establish noise mitigation plans and use equipment that will keep public exposure below 85 dB. While the new code is likely to reduce noise exposure for the general public, its impact on workers is more uncertain.

Keeping protection of workers clearly in the forefront, LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider and OSH intern Josh Julius from Johns Hopkins University explained the new code and made recommendations for successful compliance to the General Contractors Association of New York (GCANY) in July. The GCANY represents union contractors who do heavy construction for both the public and private sectors in New York City. Schneider and Julius emphasized that some of the ordinance’s recommended controls could solve a contractor’s environmental problem (public protection) but worsen the OSH problem. For instance, if noise is mitigated through the use of quieter equipment, workers and the public both benefit; in contrast, if barricades are erected to keep noise within the jobsite, problems could intensify for the workforce. Despite this concern, however, the city’s decision to control noise opens the door for improvements that will benefit workers in the long run.

As these efforts to reduce noise advanced this spring, the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) and the American Industrial Hygiene Association wrote letters to OSHA, urging reduction of its PEL to 85 dB. The agency said it will review the requests, but did not give any indication that reconsideration was imminent.

“One reason noise hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves,” says Borck, “is because it’s not immediately life-threatening like many other construction hazards. But loss of one’s hearing destroys a worker’s quality of life and creates safety hazards on the job. Without OSHA’s support, we’ve had to find other ways to protect people. This year has seen progress.”

[Steve Clark]