OSHA Tackles Hearing Conservation in Construction

Many people complain about noise hazards in the construction industry. Will OSHA be able to do anything about it?

For years, the federal government and many safety and health groups have recognized that noise-induced hearing loss among construction workers is far too common. By the age of 25, the average carpenter's hearing is equivalent to that of an otherwise healthy, non-noise-exposed 50-year old worker, according to researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Because of the unique characteristics of the construction industry, however, finding practical regulatory solutions to the problem is a challenge

In August 2002, OSHA announced it was considering revising the construction noise standard to include hearing conservation provisions that would be as protective for workers as the current General Industry Standard (29 CFR 1910.95). That rule tells general industry employers that if workers are exposed to noise levels above a time-weighted average (TWA) of 85 dBA, they must be in a hearing conservation program that contains a number of specific elements, such as audiometric testing, exposure monitoring, engineering controls, training and hearing protection devices.

Construction workers are not covered by that standard, but by 29 CFR 1926.101 and 1926.52. According to these rules, when construction workers are exposed to noise levels that exceed a TWA of 90 dBA, they must be in a hearing conservation program.

"But there's no guidance in the construction regulations about what the program must contain," says Christina Trahan, an industrial hygienist at the Center to Protect Workers' Rights, a labor organization in Washington, D.C. "So, basically employers just hand out hearing plugs."

While labor groups favor stricter new OSHA rules that would compel employers to provide the specific elements of a hearing conservation program, industry opposes such a move.

"At this point, we would not want to see OSHA adopt a general industry standard on a construction site," asserts Edward Pachico, associate director of safety and health services for Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association. Pachico makes a point frequently cited by contractors: unlike general industry workplaces, in construction there are no fixed worksites with unvarying noise levels, but rather a constantly changing hazard environment. Compounding the problem is the highly transient construction work force.

The agency asked stakeholders a series of questions about the proposed rulemaking centered on three topics:

  • Exposure monitoring;
  • Audiometric testing;
  • Portability of records.

In two informal stakeholder meetings held earlier this year, OSHA listened to the answers.

Primary Stumbling Block

Stakeholders appeared to agree that the most effective way to reach employees is through education, rather than exposure monitoring, according to an OSHA summary report of the first set of meetings held in Chicago March 24-25.

"OSHA wants to know if a task-based exposure measurement approach can work," says Rick Neitzel, M.S., CIH., a research scientist at the University of Washington's department of environmental and occupational health sciences. Neitzel is part of a team that has been conducting research into noise-induced hearing loss in construction.

What a construction worker does varies greatly from day to day, so determining exposure by task would make it easier to know what the appropriate hearing protection should be. "Unfortunately," explains Neitzel, "what we found is [noise] levels in construction are so variable, even among specific tasks, that task-based exposure estimation isn't very accurate at all."

Although OSHA specifically stated it was not requesting information on its permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 90 dBA, labor groups, NIOSH and university researchers found ways to state that in their view, the OSHA PEL is too high.

NIOSH inserted its comments on this issue when dealing with audiometric testing: "NIOSH recommends audiometric testing for construction workers exposed to TWAs equal to or above 85 dBA." NIOSH research indicates that even at the general industry action level of 85 dBA, one in eight workers will incur an occupational hearing loss great enough to cause hearing impairment.

"Audiometric testing is where there is the most controversy in any new standard," says Neitzel. "Giving annual hearing tests is hard because workers move around so much. But it's not impossible we do it here in Washington." Under its state plan, construction companies must meet the same hearing protection standards as general industry.

"Audiometric testing is considered to be a primary stumbling block related to a regulatory approach to the hearing loss program overall," according to OSHA's summary of the Chicago meeting.

The Right Thing?

"For us, a standard requiring annual audiometric testing is a good idea, just like drug testing," says Mark Hendricks, EHS director at Skanska Construction in Seattle. Hendricks is also the co-chair for management of "Build It Smart," a Washington state management-labor-consultant organization devoted to preventing injuries and illnesses in the construction industry (see sidebar).

Skanska tests all its employees. Hendricks argues that if all companies performed the tests, it would drive down the costs for Skanska and other employers who are providing the tests.

Regular audiometric tests may also be a matter of financial self-defense. Companies can be charged for workers' compensation costs or partial permanent disability for hearing loss cases even if the worker has been with the firm for only 6 months but has a lifetime of hearing loss. "The state finds out who the last employer was, and can charge it for both things. It can be anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000 per case for self-insured companies like us," says Hendricks.

Technology to the Rescue?

Because of the risk that significant noise-induced hearing loss can occur after only a few months on the job, NIOSH recommends all workers entering construction employment receive a baseline audiogram within 30 days of being hired, and annually thereafter. Few companies are heeding NIOSH's advice. One informal survey of 1,800 contractors uncovered only one company that does audiometric testing on an annual basis.

The only realistic way to track the results of workers' audiometric tests would be to establish a national database and have all companies register employees' audiograms nationwide, Don Varini of Roseville, Calif.'s Herzog Contracting commented to OSHA. Stakeholders at the Chicago meeting indicated a good deal of support for a Web-based national database.

"We're waiting to see which way this is going now," says Pachico. OSHA's options include increased monitoring, training, and requiring everyone to wear hearing protectors; the latter move would be unsafe, according to Pachico. AGC prefers OSHA to increase education and awareness of the existing standard.

Trahan said that given OSHA's intention to have more stakeholder meetings, she does not see a proposed rule in the near future.

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