Safety has always been an important issue in construction. Let’s face it, construction is not an office job. The more prepared Laborers are, the less chance for accidents and injuries. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the focus of this series, is a key part of that preparation.

Hearing Protection

As with other hazards that require PPE, employers are required to reduce noise exposure (to 90 dB time-weighted average (TWA) over an 8 hour day) at the source through engineering or administrative controls before resorting to PPE. When such controls are practically or economically infeasible, PPE must be issued.

In other words, personal protection devices – ear plugs and ear muffs – should be considered the last option to control exposures to noise.

Exposure Standards in Construction

Because construction sites – unlike most industrial workplaces – are in constant change (as projects go through their various stages), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) construction noise standard has always been ineffective. It was designed as though construction workers endure more or less constant exposure to a consistent level of noise (as on a factory assembly line). Under this standard, noise levels must be measured and if workers are exposed to certain levels for various amounts of time, employers must implement a hearing conservation program.

That kind of approach for assessing the noise danger does not work in construction so, falling to the last resort, employers simply provide PPE. However, as several audiometric screenings of retirees have shown, most long-time Laborers suffer from hearing loss.

Unfortunately, hearing loss is irreversible, and the consequences are serious. Family relationships are often destroyed when communication is disrupted. Even more important, lives on jobsites are endangered when warnings cannot be heard.

This year, however, with the LHSFNA playing a key role, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) developed a new hearing protection standard for construction that adopts a completely different approach to the problem: task-based implementation.

Under the new approach (see ANSI, “Quietly” Setting the Standard), whenever construction workers are performing tasks and working with equipment that typically would expose them to excessive noise (above 85 dB), employers should implement a hearing conservation program that prioritizes engineering and administrative controls while also providing PPE, safety training and audiometric testing. An effective hearing conservation program can prevent hearing loss, improve morale and increase the quality of production.

While the ANSI standard holds promise to transform noise exposure in construction, OSHA’s rules will continue to guide practice on many worksites. Also, in many situations, engineering and administrative controls are infeasible. Thus, the use of PPE will continue to be a necessary part of noise protection.

Personal Hearing Protection

When personal hearing protection is necessary, OSHA states that employers are responsible for selecting the appropriate protection for the particular work environment. The employer is responsible to pay for the original equipment as well as replacements. Employees are required to use the hearing protection, and the employer is responsible for enforcing compliance on the jobsite.

Hearing protection can be classified into two groups: ear plugs and ear muffs.

  • Ear plugs – disposable plugs come in several varieties, are inserted into the ear canal, are inexpensive and are thrown away after use. Effective insertion requires some training and practice. Though more expensive up-front, plugs for long-term use are also available and work well. With any ear plug, there is potential for infection as they can get dirty from handling, so they must be used properly.
  • Ear muffs – they are more expensive than disposable ear plugs but can be molded to a hard hat for easy access. They can also last a significantly longer time which may justify their higher cost.

The most important factor in choosing hearing protection is the comfort level of the equipment. To get Laborers to wear these devices, as many different options as possible should be made available so workers can select the kind they find most appropriate for their need.

The noise reduction rating (NRR) was developed to aid against unnecessary noise exposure as well as avoiding overprotection. Each hearing protection device sold in the U.S. must have a label showing the NRR.  The values of sound attenuation used for calculation of the NRR are determined in accordance with ANSI S3.19-1974. As a general rule, the NRR reduces exposure by half of its stated number. For instance, an NRR of 24 reduces noise exposure by 12 dB. So-called “double protection” in situations of extreme noise is achieved by wearing ear muffs over ear plugs. However, the protection is not really doubled; rather, exposure is reduced by an additional five to ten dB.

Eye and Face protection

Thousands of people are blinded each year from work-related eye injuries that could have been avoided with the proper choice of eye protection. These injuries cost more than $300 million per year in lost production time, medical expenses and workers’ compensation.

Construction has the highest rate of eye injuries with more than 10,600 incidences each year. With nails, pieces of metal, wood splinters and cut wire in abundance on every job site, hazards are plentiful.

What to wear

As with hearing protection, the first line of defense in eye and face protection is to reduce hazards through engineering or administrative controls. Even so, with all the hazards in construction, it always is a good idea to wear eye and face protection. OSHA requires employers to provide eye and face protection when workers are exposed to flying particles, molten metal, chemicals and welding or radiation.

  • Always wear goggles or safety glasses that have side shields. If contact lenses are in use, wear unvented goggles.
  • Always wear goggles when dust, liquids or gases are present. Also, goggles should be worn whenever working on something overhead.
  • Wear a clear plastic face shield when working with corrosive chemicals, using a wire brush on welds, sandblasting or in the presence of flying particles.

Safety glasses must also fit over prescription glasses. Prescription goggles or safety glasses are also available. Always get lenses made of polycarbonate.  All safety wear must be marked ANSI Z87.  ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, sets criteria for safety glasses.

First Aid

In case of an emergency, quick action may help prevent permanent eye damage, so emergency eyewashes should be placed in all hazardous areas, with posted first aid instructions. These stations should be made apparent to all employees and must be readily accessible so an injured worker can get there with limited vision.

LHSFNA Resources

The Fund publishes a number of hearing and vision protection resources:

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)

Huh?! (poster)

Use These (poster)

Eye Injury in Construction (health alert)

All publications are available through the Fund’s online catalogue.  The Fund also devotes a large section of its website to hearing protection.