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Unseen danger: Managing noise hazards

August 28, 2015
 / Safety / 

High ledges, heavy machinery, hot weather - The list of potential hazards on a construction site are too numerous to name here. But there is one danger that's easy to overlook, primarily because it's invisible. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates as many as 22 million American workers are exposed to noise hazards on the job. That amounts to as much as $242 million annually in worker's compensation for hearing loss. 

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A jackhammer can produce noise up to 95 dBA from as far as 15 feet.

While OSHA has detailed, recently updated guidelines in place for protecting workers and minimizing risk from excessive noise, the very definition of dangerous noise levels may come as a surprise. Excessive sound levels in the workplace have immediate consequences as well, preventing effective communication and leading to undue stress. By understanding the risks and regulations, as well as implementing an effective plan with the help of HCSS Construction Safety Systems, workers and managers will reap the rewards of a safe, efficient work environment.

"Operating a chainsaw for only two minutes without proper hearing protection can contribute to permanent hearing damage."

The real risk
The human ear is a remarkable and resilient feat of nature. But hearing loss is a gradual process, and one that rarely involves a sensation of pain. Due to the nature of sound and the sensation of hearing, it is difficult to understand the danger it poses even in small amounts. OSHA uses the standard measurement of decibels (dBA) to define and regulate noise hazards in the workplace. An important note about this scale is that it is logarithmic, which means even a small change on the scale equates to a huge change in the potential for hearing damage. This explains why OSHA's regulations for noise exposure stipulate no more than eight hours of exposure to 90 dBA, but only two hours for 100 dBA. For reference, a jackhammer heard from 15 meters away is equivalent to about 95 dBA. As this interactive noise meter from NIOSH explains, operating a chainsaw for only two minutes without proper hearing protection can contribute to permanent hearing damage. Yet the threshold of noise-induced pain is around 140 dBA. This demonstrates how easily noise limits may be neglected. Hearing loss caused by prolonged exposure to excessive noise is permanent and irreversible

The dangers of excessive noise are pervasive despite being preventable. NIOSH notes that in 2007, 82 percent of occupational hearing loss cases were from workers in the manufacturing sector. OSHA reports the median noise level on a construction site is around 86 dBA. Some of the most at-risk tasks on a job site include welding (94.9 dBA average), laying metal deck (99.6 dBA average), and chipping concrete (102.9 dBA average). With these figures in mind, it's easy to see why nearly 23,000 cases of occupational hearing loss were reported to NIOSH in 2007, and an estimated 10 million Americans suffer from noise-related hearing loss.

A costly hazard
Industry regulations have harsh consequences, and the punishments for noise violations are no exception. In 2013, a foundry in Ohio was fined more than $56,000 by OSHA for failure to protect workers from hazardous noise levels. Two of the infractions involved a lack of proper noise level monitoring, as well as for not having a comprehensive plan in place for controlling excessive noise where grinding was taking place. Grinding tasks, as researched by OSHA, involve an average dBA measurement of 95.2, well above the threshold for potential hearing loss (85 dBA). The proposed fines also included two "serious" violations regarding ladders and other safety equipment. In 2014, a manufacturer in Georgia faced more than $59,000 in fines for health and safety infractions, which included noise regulations.

The potential for damaging noise isn't limited to the construction and manufacturing industry. Without careful design and construction, a packed dog kennel can reach noise levels up to 115 dB. A hockey rink full of excited fans has been known to approach 124 dB.

"According to OSHA research, even some restaurants could see noise measurements reaching 110 dB."

And OSHA is careful to remind employers that noise hazards can be penalized with up to a $70,000 fine. These surprising statistics underscore the serious nature of noise hazard control and prevention.

Protection and prevention
A comprehensive workplace safety plan addresses the potential hazards related to excessive noise, and outlines steps to remedy any problems. OSHA has a detailed guide on planning and executing a safety investigation specifically targeting noise hazards. While this guide is intended for OSHA-employed regulators, it can serve as a useful tool for construction managers as well. An effective investigation into potential sound hazards is most effective using a sound meter and the creation of a "noise diagram." Use care to record the noise level as well as the distance from its source, and mark these measurements accordingly on the diagram. Sound moves in contours, so be sure to take readings in a radius around the noise source for an accurate reading.

Utilizing HCSS construction software for accurate and accessible recordkeeping can help streamline the process of reducing noise hazards. Construction mobile apps can be utilized to photograph and record any problem areas or noisy activity as it happens on the job. HCSS construction safety products include industry-standard inspection templates, taking the guesswork out of safety checks. Since workers must limit prolonged exposure to excessive noise, implementing the HCSS time card app can help keep precise track of hours worked and adjust accordingly.

Noise hazards in the workplace can be tough to pinpoint and even harder to manage effectively. By pairing new technology with time-tested research, the health and safety of millions of American construction workers can be drastically improved.

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