Construction Safety Hearing Protection

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), 1 in 4 construction workers suffers from some degree of hearing loss. Power tools, heavy equipment and even hand tools like hammers can all generate significant levels of noise, which, in turn, can negatively impact hearing. Hearing protection is an important step in your construction safety program.

Prolonged exposure to excessive noise is particularly dangerous and can lead to tinnitus, which is characterized by ringing, buzzing and roaring in the ears. In some cases, harmful levels of noise can lead to permanent hearing loss.

To keep employees safe, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has specific regulations related to workplace noise exposure. This Safety Matters provides a general overview of these regulations and ways you can stay safe on the job.

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OSHA’s Noise Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL)

Noise is measured in units of sound pressure levels called decibels (dB). Often, decibels are expressed as dBA, which refers to A-weighted sound levels. Essentially, this measurement is more specific than dB alone, as it accounts for relative loudness perceived by the human ear.

To protect workers and their hearing, OSHA has a specific level of how much noise an employee is allowed to be exposed to called the permissible exposure limit (PEL). Per OSHA, the PEL for noise is 90 dBA over an eight-hour workday. At this level, employees are required to wear hearing protection. In addition, for every 5 dBA above the action level, the duration of employee exposure to noise must be cut in half (e.g., 85 dBA/eight hours, 90 dBA/four hours, 95 dBA/two hours). Furthermore, exposure to noise should not exceed 140 dBA.

Beyond adhering to OSHA’s PEL, employees should avoid noise levels above 85 dBA without protection. Additionally, OSHA recommends following the 2-3 foot rule. This rule states that if you have to raise your voice to talk to a co-worker that is 2-3 feet away, you should assume noise levels are 85 dBA or above.

Protecting Yourself From Harmful Noise

Tinnitus and hearing loss can be debilitating and irreversible. However, being aware of the symptoms of hearing loss can go a long way toward ensuring your health and safety at work. Common symptoms of hearing loss include the following:

  • Straining to understand conversations
  • Needing to have things repeated frequently
  • Increasing television or radio volumes to excessive levels
  • Ringing in your ears or feeling dizzy
Hearing Protection

Hearing Protection Devices

Your ears are very sensitive. Prolonged exposure to loud noise can lead to permanent hearing damage and even cause you to go deaf. OSHA recommends that workers use hearing protection should noise levels reach or exceed 85 decibels across an eight-hour workday. Should noise exceed 90 decibels, hearing protection is required.

Hearing protection

Noise Reduction Rating

All hearing protection devices have a noise reduction rating (NRR) listed on their respective packaging. The NRR refers to how many decibels by which an environment’s noise levels will be reduced. For example, in an environment of 90 decibels, a hearing protection device with an NRR would reduce the noise levels to 57.

But, research suggests that NRRs tend to overestimate the effectiveness of devices. It is therefore suggested that devices undergo a “derating” process. Derating refers to the assumption that devices will generally not perform perfectly to their NRR due to them not fitting everyone perfectly. One method by which a device can be derated is to subtract seven from its NRR and divide the result in half. For example, an NNR of 33 would result in a derated rating of 13. In the previous example, the device in question would actually only reduce noise levels from 90 to 77, not 57.

According to industry experts, earmuffs are generally most accurate when it comes to NRR, while earplugs might have their ratings derated by as much as 70%.

Of course, different types of hearing protection have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Hearing Protection: Earplugs

Earplugs can be made from expandable foam or pre-molded using silicone, plastic or rubber. They provide blockage inside the ear canal.

Advantages:

  • Typically provide a high noise reduction rating (NRR)
  • Affordable
  • Compatible with other forms of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as hard hats, glasses and goggles
  • Small, light and easily transported
  • More comfortable in hot, humid or confined work areas

Disadvantages:

  • Easily misplaced
  • Require good hygiene practices
  • May be inserted incorrectly, resulting in inadequate protection
  • May irritate the ear canal

When an earplug is inserted correctly, the sound of your own voice should be muffled.

Hearing Protection: Earmuffs

While earplugs are inserted inside the ear canal, earmuffs provide protection by covering the canal and sometimes the entire ear.

Advantages:

  • Typically provide a high NRR
  • Fast and simple to put on and take off
  • One size fits most employees
  • Easy for others to see that you are using them at a distance
  • Not easily misplaced

Disadvantages:

  • Less portable, heavier
  • Sometimes incompatible with other PPE; however, there are special earmuffs that easily mount to hard hats
  • Can be uncomfortable or inconvenient in hot, humid or confined work areas

Hearing Protection: Canal Caps

Canal caps are somewhat of a hybrid between earplugs and earmuffs. They look similar to earplugs, but instead of being actually inserted into the ear canal, they form a lid over the entrance to the canal and are often connected by a band that can be worn around the head, around the neck or below the chin.

Advantages:

  • Fast and simple to put on and take off
  • One size fits most employees
  • Light and easily transported

Disadvantages:

  • Typically have a lower NRR than earplugs and earmuffs
  • Band may be uncomfortable or inconvenient for employees
  • More expensive than ear plugs

Summary

While there are some differences between different kinds of hearing protection equipment, their overall purpose remains the same: the safety of employees.

When using hearing protection, be sure that you are using it properly in order to make sure that it is as effective as possible. At times, it may be necessary to use two types of protection, such as both plugs and muffs, simultaneously. If you have questions or concerns about hearing protection devices, contact your supervisor.

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