We rely on our ears for a lot of life’s best moments – talking to loved ones, listening to music or hearing a child’s first words – and once they’re damaged, there’s no way to get that hearing back. October is National Protect Your Hearing Month, and Travis Parsons, the Fund’s Occupational Safety & Health Director, joined the America’s Work Force Union Podcast to discuss how hearing loss affects building trades workers and how to protect your hearing on and off the job.
According to NIOSH, 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise every year and 25 percent of construction workers suffer from a hearing impairment that impacts their day-to-day activities. On average, construction workers spend 70 percent of their time working in potentially hazardous noisy environments, yet report protecting their ears less than 30 percent of the time. The consequences of neglecting hearing protection are irreversible and can be detrimental.
“Here at LIUNA and the LHSFNA, we want to sustain our brothers’ and sisters’ health and well-being,” said LIUNA General President and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Brent Booker. “Hearing loss is a prime example of a preventable health problem that workers carry past their career and into retirement. It’s imperative that employers and members take the precautions necessary to preserve their hearing on and off the job.”
With tasks such as jackhammering, welding and grinding, it’s no surprise that construction sites can easily generate hazardous noise levels. Generally, 85 decibels (dB) is a good rule of thumb and anything above that threshold is hazardous. Many construction tasks can exceed this threshold, but current OSHA standards don’t require an employer to control noise until it reaches 90 dB as a time-weighted average (TWA). Noting that the decibel scale isn’t linear, the difference between 85 and 90 dB is very significant. The current standard isn’t adequately protective, and NIOSH recommends employers take action once noise reaches 85 dB TWA.
This is especially true when considering the length of time a construction worker might be exposed to harmful noise. In some cases, construction workers are exposed to hours of harmful noise each workday for years, which takes a significant toll. Workers’ compensation data shows the risk of hearing loss among construction workers increases with time on a job, and on average, a construction laborer has the hearing ability of someone who’s 20 years older.
Another unfortunate reality about hearing loss is that it often sneaks up on you. For many people, there aren’t any warning signs and you don’t notice symptoms until damage has already been done. Typically, a ringing in the ears – otherwise known as tinnitus – is the first noticeable sign of hearing loss. According to Parsons, this is the body’s first signal that something is wrong and warrants a visit to the doctor for testing. Additionally, there’s a misconception that ears can adjust to loud noise over time. If you notice that you can tolerate louder noises than you used to, that’s most likely a sign of hearing damage, Parsons explained.
Perhaps more concerning, recent studies have shown a link between long-term excessive noise exposure and increased fatigue, stress and elevated blood pressure. Down the line, chronic noise exposure can also lead to cardiovascular problems such as heart attack. And according to Parsons, this includes all types of noise, not just occupational exposure. Even living in a city and being exposed to traffic noise every day can have a negative impact.
Protecting Your Hearing
The good news? There’s plenty you can do – on and off the job – to protect and preserve your hearing. Some of the most common off-the-job noise hazards include excessive earbud or headphone use, sporting events, concerts, mowing the lawn and going to shooting ranges. All of these activities can reach 100 dB or more. Wearing earplugs in environments of prolonged noise and monitoring your earbud usage can help protect your hearing in the long-run.
At work, it’s important for employers to implement a written hearing conservation program and take the proper measures to protect workers from excessive harmful noise. The LHSFNA also recommends LIUNA members get a baseline audiometric test to assess their hearing and have their hearing checked annually to assess any noise-induced hearing loss.
“You’ve only got one set of ears,” Parsons said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people take [their hearing] for granted and don’t do anything about it until it’s gone. Every construction worker should have a baseline test before they go to work, and every worker should feel comfortable asking for hearing protection on the job.”