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National Hearing Protection Month

Without a doubt, construction and manufacturing are two of the loudest industries in the country. But studies evaluating the hearing abilities of workers in these trades are showing that noisy jobs are coming at a cost.  

In a 10-year study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), researchers found that workers in the construction and manufacturing industries have the second and third highest prevalence of occupational hearing impairments, only preceded by the mining sector. Despite the many avenues available to reduce noise in these industries, the study revealed that hearing impairment was still the most commonly reported work-related illness, leading to a range of moderate to complete instances of hearing loss experienced by workers every year.  

The C.D.C. study was the first to measure the overall burden of hearing impairments in jobs with high levels of noise exposure in the United States, as well as the first to estimate the prevalence based on each industry sector. However, this is not the first time the prevalence of hearing loss has been reported in these two trades.  

According to The Center for Construction Research and Training (C.P.W.R.):  

  • Before 1981, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (O.S.H.A) previously set a concerning level of acceptable noise exposure for construction workers at 90 A-weighted decibels (dBA) over an eight-hour period, when any prolonged noise exposure over 85 dBA can result in hearing loss.  
  • Hearing loss was the most commonly reported occupational illness in the manufacturing industry back in 2010, accounting for approximately 1 out of 9 injury cases reported.  
  • At least 1 in 5 construction workers self-reported hearing loss in 2010, with rates at least one-third higher than hearing loss reported in any other industry.  
  • In 2008, construction trades showed signs of significantly more hearing loss than workers in white-collar occupations, reporting higher rates of “good,”“fair,” and “poor” hearing abilities compared to white-collar workers who reported higher rates of “excellent” and “very good” hearing abilities.  
  • Between 1996 to 2010, 58% of construction workers had significant abnormal hearing loss due to work-related noise, and 42% of workers falsely identified their hearing ability as “good” or “excellent” when subsequent testing showed hearing impairments.  
  • In 2017, nearly 50 percent of all construction workers were recorded working in environments classified as “loud,” while nearly eight percent of workers were recorded working in environments classified as “very loud.” All workers exposed to “very loud” noise exposure levels were reported in construction and extraction occupations, a sector employing over 5,700,000 workers every year.  

October is National Protect Your Hearing Month, when safety organizations across the country to spread awareness on the prevalence of hearing loss across all industries. With a bulk of resources available, this is the perfect time for employers to educate their workers on the importance of hearing protection and reducing preventable noise hazards leading to hearing loss in the workplace. 

Hearing Loss In Construction and Manufacturing  

The C.D.C. reports hearing loss is the third-most common chronic physical condition reported by American adults. About 24 percent of these cases are caused by occupational injuries and exposure.  

Hearing loss occurs when damage is done to the cells and membranes within the ear. There are two factors that can lead to occupational hearing loss: noise exposure and ototoxic chemicals.  

Noise Exposure 

Exposure to loud noises at work is the leading cause of occupational hearing loss. More than 22 million workers are exposed to harmful noise levels on the job every year, some even when wearing protection. A hazardous noise level is a sound that reaches 85 decibels or higher. In other words, if a worker has to raise their voice to speak to someone within an arm’s length away, the noise level could pose a risk of hearing loss.  

Loud noises can overwork the hair cells in the ear and damage the nerves that carry sound to your brain. When exposure to hazardous noise is too long, the cells can die and are unable to recover.  

Ototoxic Chemicals 

Workers who are exposed to ototoxic chemicals can be more susceptible to noise and at a higher risk of hearing loss. These chemicals may include solvents, metals and compounds, asphyxiants, nitriles, or certain pharmaceuticals. More than 10 million workers across the country are exposed to hazardous levels of solvents at work; an unknown number of workers are exposed to other ototoxic chemicals.  

There were six stages of hearing loss referred to in the 10-year C.D.C. study used to determine the severity of impairments a worker sustained from occupational hazards:  

  1. Mild: Workers had difficulty hearing and understanding another person talking in a noisy place, and sometimes experienced ringing in their ears.  
  2. Moderate: Workers were unable to hear or understand another person talking in a noisy place and had difficulty hearing another person talking even in a quiet place or on the phone. These individuals also reported experiencing ringing in their ears for five minutes at a time on almost a daily basis.  
  3. Moderately Severe: No workers reported signs of moderately severe hearing loss, but workers experiencing symptoms slightly more than moderate and slightly less than severe would be categorized at this stage.  
  4. Severe: Workers were unable to hear and understand another person talking in a quiet place and unable to take part in a phone conversation. These workers had difficulty communicating and relating to others in social environments. These individuals also reported experiencing ringing in their ears for five minutes at a time on almost a daily basis.  
  5. Profound: Workers were unable to hear and understand another person talking in a quiet place, or able to take part in a phone conversation, and had difficulty hearing anything in any situation. These individuals also reported experiencing ringing in their ears for more than five minutes at a time, several times a day.  
  6.  Complete: Workers were unable to hear anything at all, including the loudest sounds. These individuals also reported experiencing annoying ringing in their ears for more than half of the day.  

Construction Trades Most At Risk  

Some construction trades put workers at a higher risk for noise-induced hearing loss than others. Analyzing reports from 1996 to 2010, these are the trades C.P.W.R. listed with the highest rates of hearing impairments in the industry:  

  • Welder (79.5%) 
  • Ironworker (70.8%) 
  • Boilermaker (67.9%)  
  • Carpenter (67.2%)  
  • Sheet Metal (66.9%) 
  • Millwright (66.8%) 
  • Brickmason (62.3%) 
  • Operating engineer (62%) 
  • Plumber (61.1%) 
  • Truck driver (59.6%) 
  • Electrician (54.5%) 
  • Painter (52.2%) 
  • Laborer (49.8%) 
  • Insulation (47.6%)  
  • Roofer (47.2%)  

Thousands of workers are treated for hearing loss every year. Yet, many more instances of hearing damage often go unreported. While some workers do not consider hearing loss to be an occupational injury, others contribute their impairments to age instead of preventable noise exposure on the job.  

Contractors and employers are responsible for educating their employees on the dangers of noise in the workplace. However, employers cannot properly reduce their worker’s risk without knowing the proper measures to take. A noise survey is a test that measures the level of noise exposure a worker could be exposed during a certain task or in a select area of the worksite. Without performing these tests, employers cannot determine the level of protection needed or what ways they can improve to keep workers safe on the job.  

Protect Your Hearing On The Job 

Wearing ear protection on the job is not enough to protect workers from the hazards that lead to hearing loss. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (N.I.O.S.H.) recommends the following five-step process for contractors and employers to reduce the risk of hearing loss in the workplace effectively:  

  1.  Elimination: If possible, physically remove the hazard that is causing workers to lose their hearing. Be it a noisy machine or harmful chemical, if it is a known danger, do not allow workers to put themselves in harm’s way.  
  2. Substitution: Replace the known noise hazard with a safer alternative, such as quieter more efficient machines or chemicals that do not release harmful solvents or metals into the air. 
  3.  Engineering Controls: Particularly in situations where there is no other way to perform a task without known noise hazards, isolate your workers from the hazards through intuitive engineering controls and barriers.  
  4. Administrative Controls: Change the way your employees are working in environments that could be hazardous to their hearing. Make sure workers are prioritizing safety and understand the policies made to protect them.  
  5. PPE: Personal Protective Equipment is the last step to protecting workers from hearing-related injuries. Until everything else has been done to reduce the amount of noise and chemical exposure to employees, you cannot determine the appropriate amount of hearing protection a worker needs to prevent damage. Examples of possible hearing protection include earplugs or earmuffs.  

Know The Signs of Hearing Loss 

Early intervention for hearing damage can significantly increase positive outcomes after an injury. Mayo Clinic identifies the following signs and symptoms to watch for that could indicate a hearing impairment:  

  • trouble hearing consonants 
  • muffled speech or other sounds 
  • difficulty understanding words in noisy environments 
  • asking others to speak more slowly, clearly, or loudly 
  • withdrawing from conversations  
  • turning up the volume of the T.V. or radio

Seeking medical attention immediately after noticing a problem could determine whether or not your hearing loss is at risk of increasing and if your occupation could be the cause.  

New York City Construction Accident Attorneys 

Hearing loss is not an acceptable consequence of working in the construction and manufacturing industry. Contractors and employers are responsible for reducing noise and chemical exposure on the job that can lead to such impairments; refusal to do so is considered negligence.  

At the law firm of Pazer, Epstein, Jaffe & Fein, we have been fighting for New York City workers and victims of construction accidents for over 60 years. If you or a loved one has sustained a serious construction injury, our knowledgeable team of accident attorneys are here to help. Contact us for a free consultation to review your case and your rights. 

Sources 

Masterson, Elizabeth A. “Hearing Impairment Among Noise-Exposed Workers — United States, 2003–2012.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (Retrieved on October 14, 2019)https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6515a2.htm 

“Noise-Induced Hearing Loss in Construction and Other Industries.” The Center for Construction Research and Training. (Retrieved on October 14, 2019) https://www.cpwr.com/sites/default/files/publications/CB%20page%2049.pdf

“Occupational Noise Exposure.” Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (Retrieved on October 14, 2019)https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/noisehearingconservation/ 

“October is National Protect Your Hearing Month.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (Retrieved on October 14, 2019)[https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/news/2018/october-is-npyhm] 

“OCCUPATIONAL HEARING LOSS (OHL) SURVEILLANCE.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention.(Retrieved on October 14, 2019) https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/ohl/default.html 

“NOISE AND HEARING LOSS PREVENTION.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (Retrieved on October 14, 2019) https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise/ 

“Hearing loss.”Mayo Clinic (Retrieved on October 14, 2019)https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hearing-loss/symptoms-causes/syc-20373072