Construction workers are among the most at-risk professions for noise-induced hearing loss. During NIOSH testing, 25 percent of participating construction workers had hearing impairment to a level that affected their day-to-day activities.
Protecting Hearing on the Job
Decibels measure the relative loudness of sound as perceived by the human ear. OSHA’s noise standard for construction requires employers to control noise once it reaches 90 decibels (db or dBA) as an 8-hour time-weighted average. Employers must use a combination of engineering controls, administrative controls and hearing protection to reduce exposures as part of a written hearing conservation program. NIOSH recommends employers go further and protect workers once noise levels reach 85 dBA.
“It’s so important to protect workers from hazardous noise because hearing loss is permanent,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Hearing loss can affect all aspects of our lives. A worker with hearing loss will experience that daily at work, will carry that home to family life and will have to deal with that in retirement too.”
The difference between 85 dB and 90 dB may not seem like much, but it’s very significant. That’s because the decibel scale isn’t linear, so the intensity of the sound – and the damage it can do – rises rapidly as dBs increase. For example, a sound at 20 dB is 10 times more intense than a sound at 10 dB; a sound at 100 dB is one billion times more powerful than at 10 dB.
The LHSFNA recommends employers take a task-based approach to protecting workers from hazardous noise exposure. It involves understanding the decibel level of tasks or the environment using commonly accepted estimates and taking proactive steps to protect workers’ hearing. LIUNA Local Unions, signatory contractors and other LIUNA affiliates can learn more by ordering the Fund’s Task-Based Hearing Loss Prevention guide or the Fund’s other Noise publications, including our Laborers’ Guide to Noise and Hearing Loss and our Noise Toolbox Talk.
Preserving Hearing off the Job
Many situations outside of work can put our hearing at risk. Some are obvious, such as concerts or sporting events, shooting firearms or being close to engines on boats or ATVs. Noise from these sources can easily reach or exceed 100 decibels.
However, other devices we may not think of as too loud can also damage our hearing. One example is frequent use of earbuds or headphones. According to the CDC, the maximum volume of most personal listening devices such as phones or headphones (and stereos and TVs) is 105 to 110 decibels. That’s more than enough to cause hearing damage. It also means extended listening time even below max volume could lead to hearing damage.
Are you a frequent headphone or earbud user who wants to protect your hearing? Then keep the “80 for 90” rule of thumb in mind. Cory Portnuff, an audiologist at the University of Colorado Hospital, explains: “It’s called 80 for 90 – you can safely listen at 80 percent of the max volume for a total of 90 minutes a day.”
Listening at less than 80 percent of the max volume would allow more safe listening time; listening above 80 percent of the max would allow much less than 90 minutes. When the specific decibel level of the noise from headphones or other personal listening devices isn’t known, this rule of thumb may be a helpful guide.
Here are some additional tips to preserve your hearing when using earbuds or headphones:
- If in a noisy environment, don’t crank up the volume to drown out ambient noise. That’s likely to put the listening volume above 80 dB and damage your hearing.
- Choose earbuds or headphones that block out background noise. That includes noise-canceling headphones, over-the-ear headphones that seal around the ear and snug-fitting earbuds that help block out external sound.
- Many smartphones and smart headphones will alert the user if listening volume is above safe levels. Follow this recommendation and use the lowest volume possible that allows you to hear what you’re listening to.
- Remember: earbuds, headphones or other listening devices are not hearing protection and can lead to other serious workplace hazards. Use only NIOSH-approved hearing protection such as expandable foam plugs, reusable plugs and earmuffs.
Because hearing loss is gradual and permanent, many people don’t notice until it’s too late. The LHSFNA recommends LIUNA members get a baseline audiometric test to assess their hearing at the beginning of their career and have their hearing checked annually to assess any noise-induced hearing loss. Even if you are well into your career, establishing a baseline and monitoring your hearing over time is one of the most important steps you can take to protect your hearing on and off the job.