Hearing conservation in construction

April 1, 2005
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Many interested folks were disappointed — and others probably relieved — to see OSHA’s much-discussed rule covering hearing conservation programs for construction workers slip further down the regulatory ladder when the latest agenda for standards-setting was published. Specific hearing conservation measures for construction sites is now filed under “long-term actions.”

This “downgrading” becomes more perplexing if you review the transcript from OSHA’s October 2004 Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health’s (ACCSH) meeting. In October it seemed that the program was pushing forward.

Does this mean a slowdown in the rulemaking effort? Probably. In fact, OSHA’s news release scheduling the February 2005 ACCSH meeting did not even list hearing conservation as an agenda item.

What happened?

OSHA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for a construction industry-oriented hearing conservation program in 2002. The notice included an invitation for comments and job site hearing program experiences. At the October 2004 ACCSH meeting, an OSHA representative discussed the comments that had been received and the difficult issues encountered by construction employers regarding efforts to protect workers’ hearing. These barriers are obviously proving hard for OSHA to overcome. From the ACCSH transcript, here are the issues OSHA cited as being the most difficult:

  • Audiometric testing is controversial.
  • Exposure monitoring can be difficult, not only to implement, but also to interpret for construction.
  • Hearing conservation programs are difficult to develop and monitor in construction because of the mobility of the workforce, high worker turnover, and job site variability.
  • Impact on small business is a major concern. OSHA needs to be sensitive to this concern.
  • Keeping it simple is an absolute must. Simple requirements and simple concepts are what works best in the construction industry.

Here are some facts OSHA discovered which might cause it to push forward with a proposed rule in the “long term”:

  • The use of hearing protection in the construction industry is not common.
  • Hearing loss occurs in construction at a high rate.
  • Complete hearing conservation programs, such as is required in general industry, are rare.


Continuing the effort

Although it seems that OSHA is slowing down the pace to promulgate a rule, at last October’s meeting it did outline steps being taken to address obstacles. For example, OSHA is:

  • Completing contract work to generate an industry profile and an exposure profile for the construction industry with respect to noise exposures.

  • Doing site visits to gather information on hearing conservation and monitoring programs to determine what is working and what is not.

  • Holding stakeholder meetings.

    What’s a contractor to do?

    In 1983, OSHA issued the Hearing Conservation Amendment (HCA) for general industry. The amendment added a requirement for employers to implement a hearing conservation program if employee noise exposures exceed a time-weighted average level (TWA) of 85 dBA over an eight-hour workday. At that time, OSHA stated it would develop a separate regulation for construction employees. Twenty-two years later, it has not happened.

    So what is missing from current construction provisions that a new regulation would require?

    The big issue is: The construction occupational noise exposure regulation, 29 CFR 1926.52, requires a hearing conservation program but does not tell the employer what should be in the program.

    The rule says: In all cases where the sound levels exceed the values shown in Table D-2, Permissible Noise Exposures, a continuing, effective hearing conservation program must be established.

    Interestingly, in an August 1992 “Letter of Interpretation” written in response to a question from the field, OSHA described what would constitute a good hearing conservation program for the construction industry under the requirements of 29 CFR 1926.52. That letter stated:

    “OSHA has determined that an effective hearing conservation program consists of the following elements:

    • Monitoring employee noise exposures.
    • Instituting engineering, work practice, and administrative controls for excessive noise.
    • Providing overexposed employees with individually fitted hearing protectors with adequate noise reduction ratings.
    • Implementing employee training and education regarding noise hazards and protection measures.
    • Establishing baseline and annual audiometry examinations.
    • Preventing further occupational hearing loss when the loss is identified.
    • Keeping proper records.

    “Every construction industry employer’s hearing conservation program must incorporate as many of these elements as are feasible.”

    Doing nothing is not an option

    In the interest of employee long-term hearing protection, construction employers need to do more than provide ear plugs. If you need a place to start, use the above OSHA suggestions as a guide and fill in the blanks using OSHA’s general industry requirements at 29 CFR 1910.95—Occupational Noise Exposure.

    Other good sources for occupational noise exposure information are: 1) OSHA’s Technical Manual (OTM), Section III, Chapter 5—Noise Measurement; and 2) the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Web site for Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention at: www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/noise.

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