National Conference to Prevent Hearing Loss in Construction:
P R O C E E D I N G S
Address: Preventing Hearing Loss in the Construction Trades: A Best Practices Conference
Assistant Secretary of labor, OSHA
OSHA’s Plans to Extend the Hearing Conservation Standard to Construction
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JEFFRESS: Thank you, Joe.
Only a Duke fan would point out that the Tarheels lost 13 games this year. I just want you to know that, and they do find themselves in an unexpected position, but they deserve to be there They should have been there all along. Our real problem is not that we did not deserve to be there, but the second half of the season, we had a slight collapse. But we will be there, and having seen the way that Florida is playing, I do not know how long we will be there, but we will be there We will have a good time.
Let me say that I am delighted to come here, and I
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JEFFRESS: Last year a Princeton music history professor made the news when he sued the rock band, Smashing Pumpkins. After taking his son to a concert, this man suffered a hearing loss in one ear and ringing in both ears–despite wearing industrial-strength hearing protection. And that’s just one exposure!
Yet construction workers are bombarded by noise day in and day out–jackhammers, chipping guns, bulldozers–the list goes on and on. So it’s not surprising that several recent studies have shown that a large number of construction workers experience work-related hearing loss. In fact, we estimate that 750,000 construction workers are currently exposed to hazardous levels of noise on the job. That’s about 15% of all construction workers.
We need to address this health concern on several fronts. We need a stronger standard. We need to look at enforcement of the current requirements. And we need to vigorously pursue cooperative approaches, creative strategies and outreach and education as well. When it comes to occupational hearing loss, there are two enemies–noise and time. The louder the noise and the longer the time, the greater the risk of loss.
Already, too much time has passed since OSHA adopted the hearing conservation standard for general industry in 1983. At that time, we pledged to develop a separate, similar requirement for construction. But we’ve yet to deliver on that promise.
Someone once said, “You will never find time for anything. If you want time, you must make it.” I want you to know that OSHA is determined to make the time to develop a more detailed hearing conservation standard for construction. And we intend to issue an advance notice of proposed rulemaking this year.
To preserve worker hearing, we need to move beyond a simple exposure standard and a brief notice that employers need a hearing conservation program. That’s just not enough. Employers need more guidance, and workers need more protection.
Our general industry standard is much more specific. It includes requirements for noise monitoring and audiometric testing. It requires employers to notify employees of overexposures and train them about the dangers of noise. The general industry standard lists detailed requirements for hearing protection devices. It includes an action level as well as a permissible exposure limit, so that employees get the benefits of baseline testing and hearing conservation programs earlier. And it requires employers to keep records so that hearing loss can be measured.
The construction standard includes none of these requirements. And that means far too many workers don’t have the protection they need.
Highway and street construction workers, carpenters and those involved in concrete work are the most likely to be exposed. But boilermakers and iron workers face the highest exposure levels, primarily as a result of pneumatic tool use.
The highest exposures are most likely to occur during the structural stage of construction work, during concrete work and when workers are using heavy equipment. Finding ways to reduce noise during these activities could significantly reduce noise levels for all workers at the site.
We know that implementation of engineering or work practice controls to limit noise is spotty While everyone may don a hard hat, too few workers are wearing the hearing protection they need.
Noise-induced hearing loss is 100 percent preventable. But once hearing is damaged, it cannot be restored. The loss is permanent and irreversible.
This is a problem that has taken a backseat for far too long. And we are going to do something about it. Our goal is to issue an advance notice of proposed rulemaking this summer.
We’ll be asking many questions to find out the best way to proceed. Some of these questions are very technical–such as whether the agency should adopt a lower exchange rate. The current standard cuts permissible exposure time in half for every increase of 5dB in noise levels. There’s evidence to indicate that the time should be halved for every 3-dB increase. That’s something we need to take a look at.
How much hearing loss is just a part of getting older? OSHA’s general industry standard allows an age correction to account for a gradual decline in hearing, but some recent data suggest that’s inappropriate. We’ll want to review the evidence available on this issue.
Other questions relate specifically to construction. How can we track noise exposures and hearing loss in an industry where the average worker stays on the job three to five years? What about the fact that many workers are employed by very small firms?
Another issue we need to address is accidents that occur on construction sites because workers can’t hear back-up alarms or warning signals due to excessive noise. Or because they’ve already experienced hearing losses, they cannot hear these signals if they’re wearing hearing protection.
Enforcement of the current standard poses additional problems. The construction worksite is constantly changing. We may not inspect on a day when the noise levels exceed the standard. But that doesn’t mean that noise isn’t a problem at that site.
Last year, federal OSHA conducted more than 18,000 construction inspections. The great majority focused primarily on safety issues. We only cited the construction noise standard 45 times and the hearing conservation requirements 19 times.
Part of the enforcement difficulty is the standard itself. It’s too general. That makes violations tough to prove.
Another problem is the changing nature of the worksite. There may be serious noise problems at the site–but they aren’t observed during an inspection.
Nevertheless, enforcement alone is not the answer. We need to consider alternatives as well. Just the possibility of an inspection is not going to motivate stronger hearing protection.
We need to explore cooperative approaches to reduce noise on construction sites. OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program has a proven track record for reducing injuries and illnesses of all kinds. We have expanded it to include short-term building projects. We have other construction partnerships as well - C.A.R.E. in Florida and PRIDE in the St. Louis area.
We signed a partnership agreement with AGC two years ago and one with the Associated Builders and Contractors six weeks ago. Through these agreements we will establish additional local partnerships with OSHA area offices, contractor groups and unions.
All of these partnerships share one common denominator–they require a strong safety and health program. And that program should cover noise along with other hazards.
The Laborers have also been forging partnerships. I was delighted to learn about the “buy quiet” initiative that The Laborer’s Health and Safety Fund is working on.
Engineering controls are certainly the best way to go. Reducing noise at the source is so much more effective than personal protective equipment, even though it’s difficult. But we know that’s possible, thanks to noise control research on mining equipment. Mufflers and insulation can reduce noise significantly for operators.
We also know that low-noise equipment sells. Europe is ahead of us in this regard. Germany’s Blue Angel program is one example–ranking equipment for noise much like we evaluate fuel efficiency for cars or electricity consumption for household appliances. And then encouraging manufacturers to market and contractors to buy the quiet equipment.
I also like the idea of developing maintenance guides for equipment purchasers. If contractors maintain equipment properly, that can reduce noise as well.
Initiatives like this–involving federal authorities such as the Army Corps of Engineers, manufacturers, unions and contractors–can effect significant changes more rapidly than rulemaking. I encourage you to keep pursuing them.
OSHA is also looking at hearing loss as part of its recordkeeping rule revision. When we publish a final recordkeeping rule this summer, you will see a new emphasis on recording hearing loss.
We know that hearing loss is seldom recorded. So the best estimates we have represent an undercount. In 1997, employers reported that fewer than 500 workers experienced hearing losses that required them to take time off work. Clearly this approach doesn’t come close to capturing the real extent of the problem. We hope that the new recordkeeping requirements, which take effect next January, will improve reporting and improve the statistics from BLS.
Another goal of mine is to expand OSHA’s ability to provide outreach and education. We know we need to do more to help employers who want to do the right thing.
With additional funds in 1999 and this year, OSHA has added 44 new compliance assistance officers in its area offices. These specialists are the point of contact for employers and employees looking for information on workplace safety and health or seeking specific training, like help in reducing noise on a construction site.
The President’s budget for 2001 includes a $12 million increase for outreach and education, including more staffers dedicated to compliance assistance. This will enable OSHA to put a compliance assistance specialist in every area office as well as fund development of training and outreach materials for these staffers to use. That means that virtually every business covered by federal OSHA will have someone nearby to call for help. And we will be encouraging them to do that.
Excessive noise is a problem that affects more Americans than any other occupational injury. It’s also harder to address than almost any other hazard on construction sites.
But it’s a critical issue. How many retired construction workers miss their grandchildren’s first words because their hearing has been damaged during a lifetime devoted to building for others? Too many.
Together we can find solutions to send every construction worker home whole, healthy–and hearing well. I applaud your bringing this issue to the forefront. And I promise to work with you.