The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 30, 2010

Anybody listening? Push is on to prevent hearing loss

By The Building Tradesman

The time is right, it seems, to make some noise about creating a safety standard to preserve the hearing of construction workers.

“It is time to renew pressure on OSHA to finally promulgate a noise control standard,” said Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America Management Co-Chairman Noel Borck. “Under (President G.W.) Bush, OSHA dropped the ball, but we expect more from the Obama Administration,” Borck added, citing renewed attention to standards development at OSHA. “Hearing loss is a critical issue in our industry, and a standard would keep the playing field level for union contractors as we make systemic efforts to limit the risk.”

The Laborers presented testimony on March 4 at the “OSHA listens” stakeholders meeting in Washington. “Many issues before OSHA are important to Laborers,” said Scott Schneider, Director of Occupational Safety and Health for the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America, “but we are focusing on hearing protection because OSHA has delayed way too long on this. It’s time to get moving.”

On March 30, Cathy Cole, president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, formally asked OSHA to develop a standard on hearing conservation for construction workers. She wrote in a letter to OSHA Administrator David Michaels, saying that hearing loss in construction “is a serious issue that has not been given the attention that it deserves.” The association made a similar request in 2005, but it fell on deaf ears. Other efforts over the last four decades have similarly failed.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimates that the average 25-year-old construction worker has had enough on-the-job noise exposure to already suffer the kind of loss that most non-construction employees do not endure until they reach 50.

According to the Laborers – which among the building trades has been the strongest proponent for reducing noise hazards – under the current OSHA standard, testing determines when workers are overexposed to noise. In industrial worksites such as an auto plant, for instance, where noise is constant from day to day – a simple test establishes whether an employer must provide a hearing conservation program.

But construction noise varies tremendously from day to day with the use of different equipment through various stages of the job.  As a result, constant testing is necessary to assess noise levels, yet, by the time a test is evaluated and action is taken, the exposure has occurred and the site may have new equipment coming in for the next stage.

Thus, the OSHA standard has never worked well to protect construction workers, a problem that was codified by the 1983 decision to exempt construction from OSHA’s general requirement of comprehensive hearing conservation programs in all noisy workplaces.

There are new standards available for OSHA to look at for adoption. The American National Standards Institute published new guidelines for hearing protection in 2007. The University of Washington has done extensive research on the subject and has much to offer. Plus there are improved hearing protection devices currently on the market.

“For over 26 years construction workers have not been afforded the same legal protections from hearing loss as their industrial counterparts,” Cole wrote to OSHA’s Michaels. “Over 700,000 workers are at risk and many lose significant hearing after only 10-15 years on the job.”

Cole said in 2007, more than 17,000 construction inspections resulted in only 27 OSHA noise violations being cited.

She wrote that any new standard should require that Hearing Protection Devices (ear plugs or ear muffs, for example) must be readily available on the jobsite, must be appropriate for the designated use, must be selected based on exposure, task, and need. And workers must be given a choice of several HPDs to achieve one with the best fit.

According to AIHA, as of December 2009 hearing preservation in construction remains relegated to “Long-Term Actions” on the OSHA agenda, “essentially removed from consideration at this time, with no timetable set for any additional consideration,” writes Cole.