When thinking about the injuries that can occur on a construction site, most would be quick to list falls, strains, or broken bones. However, some injuries happen gradually and take years to fully impact workers. One example is hearing loss.
The constant exposure to jackhammers, large trucks, and other noisy equipment—with decibels ranging from 90 to 120, often louder than a rock concert—is taking a toll on the construction industry’s hearing. Just under 20 per cent of all workers have experienced job-related hearing loss or impairment—and in the construction industry, the prevalence is 25 per cent, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The nature of the construction industry, where two days are rarely the same, can make exposure to high-decibel noises difficult to track, says John Dony, director of the Campbell Institute and director of environmental, health, safety and sustainability at the National Safety Council.
In a manufacturing environment, for example, production schedules may be more rigid, and a worker has a specific task to perform for a certain number of hours per day, so exposure to noise can be monitored better.
“Any time you’re working around loud equipment in a less controlled way, it gets tough,” Dony explains. “For construction, you have a much more fluid sort of worksite. You might have folks who, one day, are going to be standing next to a jackhammer for eight hours, and the next day they’re going to be on another part of the construction site, so they won’t be exposed to the same degree. So, it’s much tougher to get that baseline and understand what that exposure is.”
Dony says careful planning around worker exposure to noise will help combat the problem, and looking “at the risk exposure of every single job every single day to some degree.”
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration requires that employers provide hearing protectors—earplugs and earmuffs—to all workers that are exposed to eight hours of noise levels of 85 decibels or higher. Employers are also required to educate their workers on the dangers of noise and the risk of hearing loss.
While employers must give employees the tools to protect their hearing, workers don’t always wear the needed protective gear during their shifts. More than one-third of noise-exposed workers report not wearing hearing protection, according to NIOSH.
“When you’re sending a team out to do some work, you need to consider all the different factors that can potentially cause injury and ailments, including the longer-term-exposure sorts of issues, like hearing conservation,” Dony says.
Regular hearing tests can help workers identify hearing problems early. Some signs of hearing loss include:
- Muffled speech and sounds
- Difficulty understanding words, especially against background noise
- Trouble hearing consonants
- The need to ask others to speak more slowly, clearly and loudly
- The need to turn up the volume of the television or radio
- Withdrawal from conversations
- Avoidance of social situations
Aging also contributes to hearing loss. With construction’s aging workforce, Dony says the issue of hearing loss will have an even greater impact on the industry. The median age of construction employees is 42.6, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to the overall U.S. workforce average of 41. There are nearly 4.6 million construction workers over age 45 in the U.S.
“You’ve got to cross-segment that up against the overall aging population in the workforce, and so we’ve seen that become a more and more prevalent issue, not only in construction but everywhere,” Dony says. “Industries are seeing these sorts of things that they haven’t seen before because their population is aging in place.”