Work-related hearing loss is a serious risk for the construction trades. Between the constant drone of heavy equipment and backup beepers, the whirring of power tools, and the pounding of jackhammers and hammer drills, construction sites create an assault on the auditory system that can cause permanent hearing damage.
The hearing loss from prolonged noise exposure can create unsafe work conditions, putting employees at risk of accident or injury. When they’re unable to hear the backup alarms on equipment or warnings to “look out!” from their coworkers, they cannot protect themselves from other inherent job-site dangers.
Dr. Lanter is lead audiologist for hear.com
Hearing loss can also affect quality of life at home, creating strained relationships with loved ones, social isolation, and depression. These issues can spill over to impact job performance, overall health, and wellbeing. This all can lead to lower productivity, more sick days, lost time, and higher personnel and benefits cost for employers.
Providing hearing protection for employees is obviously the first line of defense against hearing loss, and it certainly should be a part of every safety and PPE protocol. But it’s not the only safeguard available.
Here are five other steps to take besides providing earplugs that will protect construction workers’ hearing.
1) Install sound dampening into equipment. The NIOSH Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) is no more than 85dBA over an 8-hour shift for safe noise level. But it’s not only the volume of noise that can affect hearing. The intensity, frequency, duration, and proximity also play a role. One way to reduce the intensity and frequency is by installing baffles or other sound-insulating material inside the cab of heavy equipment. This can help reduce noise exposure for operators who often spend an entire shift inside the machine.
2) Train employees in the proper use of hearing protection. Simply providing earplugs or over-the-ear muffs isn’t enough if employees don’t know how to properly use them. Foam earplugs cannot provide the advertised protection without proper insertion. Regular training in how to correctly insert and/or use hearing protection ensures that employees maximize the hearing PPE. Test employees’ hearing with protection in place to ensure a proper placement or fit.
3) Talk about the importance of hearing protection and treatment. One of the biggest risks around hearing loss is shame and embarrassment. Some view hearing loss as a handicap, and they are hesitant to admit they have a problem. Counter this shame by normalizing the conversation about hearing protection and treating hearing loss on the job site. Some may fear that using hearing aids will make them seem old. But the truth is, modern hearing aids are cool tech gadgets. They can double as earbuds for streaming music, podcasts, and phone calls. Modern hearing aids can stand up to sweat and dirt.
4) Provide routine hearing screening. One of the risks of hearing loss is that the longer it goes on, the less likely hearing aids will provide optimal results. After prolonged auditory deprivation, the brain can “forget” how to hear, which makes hearing aids less effective. Routine hearing screening achieves several objectives. First, it provides a baseline, which allows you to detect hearing loss before it worsens. Second, it provides empirical evidence for those who may think their hearing is fine or are hesitant to admit there’s a problem. Finally, it allows for earlier intervention, to ensure hearing aid use has the greatest chance for success.
5) Offer hearing solutions. For most people, the biggest barrier to accessing hearing aids is the cost. It’s true, these high-tech devices can be costly, especially for high-quality systems that enable customizable profiles for different environments. Companies can ease this burden by offering on-site hearing aid screening and consultation, so that employees don’t have to worry about making an appointment after work hours or taking time off from work. Employers can also partner with hearing aid providers to offer discounts on products and be sure to include coverage for hearing aids as part of your benefits package. By making hearing aids easily accessible, companies can lower the barrier to access and reduce the stigma associated with them.
Hearing loss can be devastating for employees both personally and professionally and increase the risk of accidents and other injuries on the job site. Providing hearing protection is the most obvious step to prevent hearing loss, but it’s not the only solution. By taking additional measures to reduce noise exposure, monitor hearing function and make prevention and treatment a daily priority, construction equipment operators and contractors can minimize the risk of hearing loss for their employees and lower the financial burden for themselves.