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CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training

Most construction workers lose a lot of their hearing. You lose hearing slowly, so you may not notice. But if you can't hear, you may be in danger on the job.

Noise doesn't just hurt your hearing. You can also get tinnitis, a ringing sound in your ears. Too much noise can make you tired and nervous. It can raise your blood pressure and add stress that can help lead to heart disease.

Exposure Levels

Noise levels are measured in decibels (dBA). We talk at about 70 decibels. Decibels are measured on a scale like the one for earthquakes. So when the decibels go up a little, the noise goes up a lot. 73 decibels is 2 times as loud as 70. OSHA has rules about how long you may be exposed to a noise level, before you must wear hearing protection:

Allowed to be unprotected
At this noise level
Up to 8 hours
90 decibels
Up to 4 hours
95 decibels
Up to 1 hour
105 decibels

When the noise is 95 decibels, OSHA says you may work with no hearing protection for only 4 hours. Even so, this noise level is not safe; 1 in 5 people exposed regularly to 90 decibels (as OSHA allows) will lose some hearing. Short, very loud (impact) noises can do the most harm.

If you have to raise your voice for someone 3 feet away to hear you, the site may be too noisy and you need hearing protection.

Most construction noise comes from equipment. These decibel levels have been measured:

Equipment decibels Equipment decibels
Pneumatic chip hammer 103-113 Earth Tamper 90-96
Jackhammer 102-111 Crane 90-96
Concrete joint cutter 99-102 Hammer 87-95
Skilsaw 88-102 Gradeall 87-94
Stud welder 101 Front-end loader 86-94
Bulldozer 93-96 Backhoe 84-93

The noise levels change. The noise from a gradeall earthmover is 94 decibels from 10 feet away. The noise is only 82 decibels if you are 70 feet away. A crane lifting a load can make 96 decibels of noise; at rest, it may make less than 80 decibels.

Protect Yourself

Try to do five things:
  • Make the workplace quieter. Ask contractors to buy quieter models when they buy new equipment. Good maintenance, new mufflers, and other changes can make a difference too. Put sources of loud noise, like compressors and generators, as far away from the work zone as possible. Also, plywood or plastic sheeting set up around machinery can shield noise.
  • Cut the time you spend around loud noises. Ask to have workers rotated from noisy jobs to quieter jobs, if possible. Take rest breaks away from noisy spots. Wear protective equipment. OSHA says, if changes the contractor makes do not get noise levels low enough, you must wear hearing protection.* And you should be trained to use it.

    Use hearing protection that is easy to put on and take off. Some hardhats have earmuffs for hearing protection that can be lifted out of the way when you don't need them. Some ear plugs have neckbands so you don't lose them if you take them off.
  • Have your hearing checked each year. Ask for at least a standard pure-tone test. Tell them your work is noisy, so they will know you may have lost some hearing.
  • Measure the noise on site. Your local union can buy a low-cost sound meter.

You Should Know

Many workers don't want to use hearing protection. They are afraid they won't hear warning signals, like backup alarms. But some new protectors can let in voices and block other noises. You may not need the hearing protection designed for the loudest noises – just something comfortable that lets you hear talking and takes away some of the noise around you.

For more information,
call your local union, CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) (301-578-8500 or www.cpwr.com , the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (1-800-35-NIOSH or www.cdc.gov/niosh , or OSHA (1-800-321-OSHA or www.osha.gov). Or go to www.elcosh.org.

*The OSHA standard (1926.52) says, it "shall be provided."

This document appears in the eLCOSH website with the permission of the author and/or copyright holder and may not be reproduced without their consent. eLCOSH is an information clearinghouse. eLCOSH and its sponsors are not responsible for the accuracy of information provided on this web site, nor for its use or misuse.

© 2003, CPWR – Center for Construction Research and Training. All rights reserved. CPWR is a research, development, and training arm of the Building and Construction Trades Dept., AFL-CIO: CPWR, Suite 1000, 8484 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20910. (Edward C. Sullivan is president of the Building and Construction Trades Dept. and of CPWR and Joseph Maloney is secretary treasurer.) Production of this card was supported by grant CCU317202 from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and grants U45-ES09764 and U45-ES06185 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of NIOSH or NIEHS.Noise 6/10/03

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