How effective are occupational hearing loss (OHL) protection programs in the United States? Results of a new study in Washington state indicate that they are often inadequate.

“Hearing loss continues to be a serious problem among construction Laborers, as several representative samplings at our health fairs and union halls have shown,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan. “This study indicates that there’s still significant room to improve the quality and implementation of hearing conservation programs, particularly in construction.”

The study was based on noise data collected with dosimeters at 76 companies in eight industries, including construction, representing a cross section of OHL claims in the state (unlike federal OSHA, Washington’s hearing conservation standard applies to construction). It also drew on observations of on-the-job use of hearing protection and on interviews with workers and company management personnel. Company participation was voluntary – about 50 percent of those contacted agreed to participate – so it is likely that results are skewed somewhat toward companies with better practices. No differentiation was made between union and nonunion companies.

The study found that almost four out of ten workers who were exposed to excessive noise (above 85 decibels) did not routinely use hearing protection. Over the long run, this kind of exposure will cause permanent hearing loss.

However, the study also found that the highest rates of routine hearing protection use were at companies with the most complete hearing loss programs. Not surprisingly, these companies were concentrated in the most persistently loud industries – lumber milling, heavy gauge metal manufacturing and fruit and vegetable processing. Industries such as construction, where noise is more intermittent and irregular, had less complete hearing protection programs, and hearing protection use in these industries was in the lower ranges.

Thus, the report’s authors concluded, “Ironically, workers with the greatest risk of OHL may be those employed at companies where a low to moderate number of workers are overexposed to noise but use of protection is low, rather than at companies where noise is most prevalent and protector use is higher.”

“The report’s conclusion offers some guidance to the construction industry,” says O’Sullivan. “Because excessive noise exposure is not a constant problem, it is easy for Laborers and contractors to shrug off hearing protection and noise control. Our signatory employers first need to look for administrative and engineering controls that will reduce the exposure risk, and then our members must use the proper hearing protection when required.”

The report also notes that the exposure risks in the study were calculated using the older OSHA standard. Had the more protective NIOSH recommendations been used, the number of overexposed workers would have been 1.5 to three times higher.

The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division can help signatory employers and LIUNA members address noise risks at construction or other jobsites. Its professional staff can do a site audit – including noise monitoring, if necessary – and help design a site- or company-specific hearing conservation program. The Fund also publishes Noise and Your Job (a pamphlet) and Hearing Conservation for Construction Workers (a manual to guide employers in establishing a program). More information is available at the Division’s extensive noise website.

The Washington study was conducted by William E. Daniell, MD MPH at the University of Washington and was published March 21, 2006, in the online Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.