Did you know that a comprehensive program that protects workers’ hearing can also reduce their risk for heart disease? While often a consequence of diets high in trans fat and salt, tobacco use and lack of physical activity, this leading cause of death and disability in the U.S. and Canada can also develop from exposure to jackhammers and other common construction noise. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in addition to hearing loss, routine exposure to loud noise can also cause high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Without treatment, workers with these conditions are at risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), the most common form of heart disease.
The study found that a quarter of U.S. workers, many of whom work in construction, experience hazardous noise on the job. The construction industry has one of the highest rates of occupational noise exposure, with 51 percent of workers exposed to hazardous noise levels.
“A significant percentage of the workers we studied have hearing difficulty, high blood pressure and high cholesterol that could be attributed to noise at work,” said Liz Masterson, Ph.D. study co-author. “If noise could be reduced to safer levels in the workplace, more than five million cases of hearing difficulty among noise-exposed workers could potentially be prevented. This study [also] provides further evidence of an association of occupational noise exposure with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and the potential to prevent these conditions if noise is reduced.”
In the U.S. alone, the latest costs associated with CVD are at $555 billion and climbing. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), an employee with CVD costs his or her employer an average of 60 hours in lost work time and over $1,100 in lost productivity per year.
“These costs underscore the importance of maintaining a hearing conservation program on construction sites, where hazardous noise exposures are often unavoidable,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Controlling hazardous noise levels at the source and providing hearing protection when hazardous noise levels cannot be reduced can go a long way toward preserving worker hearing and overall worker health.”
In construction, OSHA requires employers to provide hearing protection when workers are exposed to noise when sound level exceed 90 dBA as an eight hour time-weighted average. However, some OSHA-approved state plans (e.g., Washington require hearing protection at 85 dBA.
How Noise Affects Heart Health
Researchers believe that routine exposure to noise activates the body’s stress response or “fight or flight” reaction. The resulting spike in adrenaline and other hormones makes blood pressure rise, the heart pump faster and raises cholesterol levels. These effects are intended to last just long enough for the body to escape the stressful situation. Problems can occur when the stress (in this instance, noise) can’t be avoided because it spans the entire workday. When this happens, the body remains in a heightened state of alertness, which over time can damage the vascular system, permanently elevating blood pressure and cholesterol and increasing risk for CVD and complications such as heart attack and stroke. The AHA predicts that by 2035 half of all Americans age 45 and over will have CVD if current risk factors are not reduced.
Protect Heart Health and Hearing with Help from the LHSFNA
The LHSFNA has developed a number of materials that employers can use to help keep workers healthy and protect their hearing. Go to www.lhsfna.org and click on Publications to order our Your Heart at Work Toolbox Talk, Nutrition and Fitness for Laborers pamphlet and Task-Based Hearing Loss Prevention manual. LIUNA signatory contractors can also contact the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety & Health Division at 202-628-5465 for assistance in setting up a hearing loss prevention program that is specific to your site.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]