Hearing loss is one of the most common maladies affecting construction workers - and one of the most easily preventable.
New research out by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that a whopping 44 percent of carpenters and 48 percent of plumbers - the two trades that were studied - said that they had a perceived hearing loss.
But it gets worse. In the best tradition of closing the barn door after the horses have escaped, the workers acknowledged that their environment put them at risk for hearing loss - but they mostly ignored hearing protection and reported that they believed using hearing aids would restore hearing the same way glasses restore vision.
Wrong, said Carol Merry Stephenson, a researcher for NIOSH. She said even the best and most expensive digital hearing aids cannot restore hearing lost in the higher decibel ranges, which is the level that is damaged first by exposure to loud noise.
Stephenson told the Construction Labor Report that after years of interviews with carpenters, she discovered that they had more of a fear of tinnitus - a persistent ringing in the ear - rather than of mild hearing loss.
"It's so rare to go on a construction site where people are actually wearing hearing protection," she said. When they do find a worker using hearing protection it is often because the individual is concerned about being able to participate in outside activity such as working as a musician.
NIOSH is conducting five new projects this year to learn more about hearing loss. Stephenson's work began in 1993, when they set out to do a health hazard evaluation of carpenters. "We found this rampant hearing loss," she said. Their studies found that 25-year-old carpenters had the hearing of non-noise-exposed 50-year-olds.
With all the trades working so closely together, there's every reason to believe that the hearing of other crafts workers are similarly affected.
"It's not surprising that several recent studies have shown that a large number of construction workers experience work-related hearing loss," said Charles Jeffress, assistant secretary of
Labor, OSHA, earlier this year. "In fact, we estimate that 750,000 construction workers experience work-related hearing loss."
Jeffress said OSHA adopted a hearing conservation standard for general industry in 1983, and at the time pledged to adopt a similar requirements for construction. It never happened. "We are going to do something about it," he said. "Our goal is to issue advance notice of proposed rulemaking this summer."
So in the meantime, how do workers save their hearing ability? If you expect the answer to be "wear your hearing protection," such as ear plugs and ear muffs, you would only be partially correct. Hearing loss is "100 percent preventable," NIOSH says, but hearing protection is perceived by some workers as cumbersome and dangerous, if it blocks out the noise of vehicles backing up or other potential hazards. Plus, workers who have already experienced hearing loss may have trouble understanding speech while using hearing protection.
"I really look at hearing protection as a stopgap measure until we engineer out the noise," Stephenson said. Added Jeffress: "Engineering controls are really the best way to go."NIOSH says examples of effective engineering controls include installing mufflers on power equipment or building an acoustic barrier. The Laborers Health and Safety Fund is also working on a "buy quiet" initiative to bring attention to lowering the decibel level of tools.
But those kinds of efforts cost money, and until that happens on a widespread basis, keep the ear plugs in and the ear muffs on, as much as you can. Once you lose hearing, you'll never get it back.