With everything from cranes to concrete trucks dotting the landscape, construction sites are inherently noisy. This might be an unavoidable part of reality in the industry, but there is a fine line between safe noise levels and ones that might be considered a health hazard. When does construction site noise cross that line into health hazard territory, and what can supervisors and business owners do to protect their teams on the job?
What Creates Noise Hazards in Construction?
The average person encounters various sources of noise every day, such as conversations on their way to work, blow-dryers they use in the morning or motorcycles that pass them on the street. Once things reach a certain volume, the noise can become dangerous.
On a construction site, nearly everything can generate potentially dangerous levels of noise. A jackhammer, often used for breaking through concrete or stone, generates 100 A-weighted decibels (dBA) of noise. A chainsaw clocks in at 110 dBA and a hammer drill at 115 dBA. Outside a construction site, those levels fall somewhere between the noise generated by a snowblower and a large thunderclap.
When Is Noise Considered a Health Hazard?
Understanding decibel levels is only part of the equation. Construction workers and employers also need to understand when a noise becomes a health and safety hazard. Everything listed above would be considered a safety hazard on a construction site.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other safety experts, workers need to start wearing ear protection when things reach 85 dBA. At anything above that point, employees risk hearing damage and other health concerns.
Ninety dBA is the eight-hour exposure limit, meaning damage occurs after a regular eight-hour shift while being exposed to 90 dBA. At 100 dBA, exposure needs to be limited to 15 minutes at a time. At 110 dBA, hearing damage can occur in as little as one minute.
What Are the Health Impacts of Dangerous Noise Exposure?
Hearing damage isn’t the only potential health impact from dangerous noise exposure, though it usually gets the most press. Studies conducted over the years have found that outside the auditory impact of high noise exposure, continual exposure to sounds of 90 dBA or higher can affect sleep quality, which in turn negatively affects work performance and workplace safety. There have even been cases where constant noise exposure has negatively impacted cardiovascular health, increasing cases of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Reaching higher into the registries, noises in the 150 dBA range are enough to burst eardrums. Between 180-200 dBA is loud enough to cause death — but no worries, workers are unlikely to encounter sounds that loud unless they’re standing next to a rocket while it takes off.
How Can Employers Create Safer Worksites?
For employers concerned about noise levels and hearing health, what can they do to create safer worksites? Start by understanding all the risks employees might encounter on the job, from hearing loss to OSHA’s Fatal Four and everything in-between. With that information in hand, it’s easier to make educated decisions on keeping team members safe.
Provide education and training on hearing health and noise safety for all employees. Keeping decibel meters around the job site might not be feasible, but individuals can use baselines to estimate whether they need to put on hearing protection. If someone has to raise their voice to talk to someone else nearby, for example, it’s a good indication that ambient noise is a concern in the moment.
Additionally, provide employees with adequate hearing protection while they’re on the job. It’s also important to ensure everyone uses their hearing protection while working. Something as simple as wearing earplugs or other hearing protection can prevent a lifetime of hearing loss and other health problems.
Reducing Noise Exposure in Construction
Noise levels might not be the first thing that comes to mind for someone trying to figure out how to make construction sites safer, but when heavy equipment is in play, it needs to be at the forefront of everyone's mind.
Excessively high noise levels are dangerous, causing hearing damage and other health concerns. It’s up to employees to protect themselves, and employers must ensure they have the means to do so.