If you cut yourself, fall off a scaffold, or even whack your thumb with a hammer, chances are you'll know you've been injured. But every day untold numbers of construction workers suffer irreversible damage to their hearing and have no idea they are being harmed. Unlike other occupational injuries, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) causes no immediate pain or trauma, leaves no scars or bruises, and is unnoticeable in its early stages. Damage compounds with each additional overexposure, and the hearing loss is permanent.
Industry wide, the problem has become so bad that recent studies indicate as many as 60% of construction workers have suffered a significant decline in hearing. By the age of 41, only one in five have normal hearing, and after 16 to 25 years on the job, the average worker has the hearing of someone 20 years older. Yet ironically, noise-induced hearing loss is easily and completely preventable.
Getting workers to wear hearing protection is the challenge. Construction is traditionally a “non-corporate” industry, and workers tend to be more individualistic. Many feel that wearing hearing protection devices will limit their ability to hear other things on the job, such as communication from fellow workers, warning signals, or even the change in sound a concrete mixer makes when the mud is ready. Workers do not understand how hearing loss occurs and there is a machismo among construction workers that accepts hearing loss as part of the job.
Innovations in monitoring equipment and hearing protection devices (HPDs) have substantially improved our ability to protect workers. The key is to address the human dimensions of the problem, taking into account how workers view noise, how they need to function on the job, and how they can actually use hearing safety products. We call these factors “the Four C's” of hearing protection—Caring, Comfort, Convenience, and Communication. Here's how they work:
Caring: We live in a culture that increasingly accepts noise as a fact of life. Making workers understand when and how noise can be dangerous helps them realize the need for protection. There are many ways to do this, from seminars and training programs, to posting noise levels in hazardous areas. Studies have also shown the most effective technique is to review workers' audiograms with them as part of an annual testing program. Even if they can't hear the difference in their hearing, seeing a “notch” on their audiogram makes a big impact.
Comfort and Convenience: Studies have shown that workers will not wear hearing protection if it is uncomfortable or inconvenient. This is especially true on a construction site where workers are very mobile and likely to be occupied when a noise event occurs. Several new earmuff designs make hearing protection more comfortable and work in sync with other personal protective equipment (PPE), such as earmuffs that attach to hard hats, or that incorporate neckbands for wearing with welding shields. Some new styles offer brightly colored earcups and reflective headbands for increased visibility day and night. Others even come with built-in AM/FM radios and jacks for MP3 players.
Earplugs are another comfortable alternative. Corded earplugs hang conveniently around the neck when not in use. New designs that require no “rolling down” prior to insertion improve hygiene and deliver instant protection upon proper insertion. Other styles incorporate firm stems to facilitate insertion. Other earplugs use advanced materials that adapt to the wearer's ear canal for a more personalized fit. Earplug dispensers in noisy areas around the jobsite encourage use, as does insisting on “top down” compliance with company-wide hearing protection policies.
But the most common complaint workers have about HPDs is that they obstruct their hearing. Workers need to communicate on the job, and new designs and material technologies are providing solutions. For high-end applications, earmuffs are available with electronic communications capability, and even with the ability to block excessively loud sounds while electronically amplifying voice sounds to a safe volume. And for normal, more everyday applications, several new earplug and earmuff products are designed to block out more low frequency sounds while allowing higher frequency sounds, including human voices, to be heard more naturally.
— Renee S. Bessette, senior marketing/communications specialist, Bacou-Dalloz Hearing Safety Group