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5 Minutes Could Cost You … Your Hearing

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

The most common way construction laborers protect against hearing loss is through the use of hearing protection devices (HPDs) such as earmuffs and earplugs. These devices have assigned noise reduction ratings (NRRs) that determine how effective they are at reducing noise exposure. For example, a pair of earplugs with a NRR of 25 decibels (dB) could reduce exposure from a 105 dB jackhammer to 80 dB. This would bring exposure below OSHA’s permissible exposure level (PEL) of 90 dBA for an eight-hour shift.

“Hearing protectors must be worn, and fitted properly, to give effective protection,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “It might seem obvious, but removing hearing protection for just a few minutes causes a drastic reduction in protection.”

The British Health and Safety Executive (HSE) uses an online tool to illustrate this issue. Using the tool’s adjustable scale, it’s easy to see that taking off 25 dB hearing protection for only five minutes an hour effectively reduces the level of protection during that hour to only 11 dB. Using the example from earlier, our 105 dB jackhammer is now causing permanent hearing damage at a noise exposure of 94 dB.

“Before you take off that pair of earmuffs for ‘just a minute,’” says O’Sullivan, “remember that when it comes to noise protection, every minute matters.”

Engineering and Administrative Controls

The example above highlights why HPDs are at the bottom of the hierarchy of controls when it comes to noise exposure. Effective hearing conservation programs first try to eliminate the source of noise or if that’s not possible, substitute quieter equipment in its place.

Engineering controls such as modifying equipment, erecting physical barriers like walls or curtains and enclosing the source of the noise all protect workers from excessive noise exposure. Administrative controls include periodically rotating workers out of noisy areas or instituting a mandatory minimum distance between workers and sources of noise exposure.

Communicating with Those Who Have Hearing Loss

Whether you’re a contractor or a Laborer, if you work in the construction industry long enough, you’re going to encounter those with hearing loss. Communicating with people who have permanent hearing damage can present some challenges, but remembering a few helpful tips will help both sides communicate more effectively.

  • Speak in a normal tone of voice or one slightly louder than usual. Don’t shout.
  • Speak clearly and articulate well, but don’t exaggerate your mouth and lip movements.
  • Don’t speak rapidly, but don’t slow your speech down to the point where it may be insulting.
  • Try to hold your head still while talking, and don’t make extraneous gestures or put your hands near your mouth.
  • Face each other when you talk – don’t do other things at the same time, like look at your cell phone.
  • Pause frequently before phrases and sentences to allow the listener to catch up.
  • Summarize important points and look for signs of uncertainty in the listener.

Click here to read more tips about communicating with those who have hearing loss.

Anyone who’s ever stepped foot on a construction site knows construction can be a noisy business. But noise is more than an inconvenience that makes communicating with others on site more difficult – it’s a serious hazard with lasting effects. And once your hearing is damaged, it’s damaged for good.


The LHSFNA maintains a dedicated Noise page on our website that details best practices for controlling noise on construction sites and provides more information on noise resources such as “buy-quiet” initiatives.

The Laborers’ Guide to Hearing Loss Prevention in Construction pamphlet and Task-Based Hearing Loss Prevention manual are available through the online Publications Catalogue. For help setting up a hearing conservation plan on your jobsite, call the Occupational Safety and Health Division at 202-628-5465.

[Nick Fox]

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