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OSHA amplifies efforts to limit construction workers' noise exposures

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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has started the process for a potential — and some argue long overdue — Noise in Construction standard.

The potential standard was included on OSHA's regulatory agenda published last month, with the agency planning to issue a request for information in November to gauge the effectiveness and feasibility of adopting more protective noise-hazard requirements.

Two recent studies on occupational hearing loss conducted by the Department of Energy and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded that a significant percentage of construction workers have suffered hearing loss over the duration of their careers, OSHA said. The agency currently has the permissible exposure limit for construction noise set at 90 A-weighted decibels over an eight-hour period, but NIOSH's recommended exposure level is 85 A-weighted decibels over that timeframe.

A standard would ideally offer construction workers protection from hearing loss already available to general industry workers via the OSHA Hearing Conservation Amendment, which specifically excludes the construction sector, stakeholders said. Current federal construction noise rules do not mandate hearing conservation programs or testing at equivalent levels required by the amendment for general industry employees.

“Construction workers' ears are not any tougher than workers in factories, but the two rules are really different,” said Chris Trahan, deputy director of CPWR in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It's not a great regulatory scheme we have in construction for noise. It's lacking, and people lose their hearing exposed to levels lower than 90.”

Washington state has adopted a “much more stringent” noise standard than OSHA's because it sets the permissible exposure limit at 85 decibels over an eight-hour timeframe and requires workers exposed to levels above that during their full shift to wear hearing protection devices, said Richard Gleason, a senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the School of Public Health of the University of Washington in Seattle.

“The OSHA rule of 90 decibels is very, very old, and it does not protect the average construction worker,” he said. “I think almost everyone agrees that a better number is 85, not 90, and there's a huge difference.”

Washington state has been engaged in addressing this hazard for more than a decade, in part because its workers compensation data showed that while construction workers made up only 7% of the state's workforce, they filed more than 21% of all accepted workers comp hearing loss claims, according to a 2004 report by the department. An average construction worker retiring at 62 with a 40% hearing loss could result in a $30,000 workers comp claim, Mr. Gleason said.

He recommended OSHA follow Washington state's lead by lowering the threshold to mandate hearing protection to 85 decibels, instituting baseline and annual audiometric tests, and requiring initial and annual retraining of employees on noise hazards and hearing protections.

OSHA could also model a proposed standard on a voluntary American National Standards Institute standard that ties the exposure to particular tasks rather than a worker's average exposure over an eight-hour day, which is easier for employers and employees to comply with, said Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America in Washington, D.C.

In 2014, NIOSH launched the Buy Quiet initiative to convince employers to voluntarily purchase quieter equipment and encourage U.S. manufacturers to identify the noise levels of their equipment — a requirement in Europe.

“A lot of companies do stuff voluntarily, but there's always a good number of companies that wait until it's required,” Mr. Schneider said. “For those companies, an OSHA standard is necessary.”