Are your construction tools damaging your hearing?

Did you know that one million people are exposed to hearing-damaging noise at work? If you work in construction, you’re most likely aware that the industry is a noisy business. But did you also know that the sector has the second-highest rate of people developing occupational deafness?

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Unfortunately, when you lose your hearing, it’s both irreversible and life-changing. With this in mind, Insulation Express has investigated the noise levels of construction tools, before revealing the many ways in which construction site workers can protect themselves.

Noise levels of construction tools

The volume of sound is measured in decibels (dB). The higher the decibel, the louder the noise and, therefore, more damaging. This scale is measured from 0 to 140 dB. However, if you are exposed to anything at 85 dB or higher for extended periods of time, your hearing can be permanently damaged.

Construction is a noisy business, with even the most basic of tasks like hammering a nail producing the same level of noise as a loud thunderclap.

To help raise awareness, Insulation Express has uncovered the decibels of the most common tools found on site – without hearing protection. Each tool has then been ordered from loudest to quietest so that construction workers can understand the hearing implications that come from working with these tools every day.

Using a scabbler for 15 minutes can permanently harm your hearing

Most construction tools are way above the recommended limit (85 dB); therefore, workers should always wear ear protection.

For example, using a scabbler for 15 minutes is nearly as loud and just as damaging to our ears as a helicopter flying at 100ft.

What’s more, using a pneumatic breaker without protection for one minute, is the noise equivalent of a military jet taking off.

At the top of the noise scale is a cartridge tool. Even using this for one second creates sound levels of 157 dB that are instantly damaging to your hearing without protection.

Removing your earmuffs for just five minutes cuts your protection in half

Naturally, if you become familiarised with the noise level on a construction site, you may believe there’s no harm in removing your hearing protection. However, research from the Health & Safety Executive has revealed that removing your earmuffs for a couple of minutes can seriously damage your hearing.

If you are using earmuffs that provide 25 dB of protection, removing them for five minutes will reduce your overall protection to 11 dB (56% less). Or removing your earmuffs for 10 minutes will reduce your overall protection to just 8 dB (68% less).

For example, if you were to use an electric drill (100 dB) whilst wearing earmuffs that give a protection of 25 dB, your ears would only hear noise levels of 75 dB. However, removing your protection for five minutes reduces that 25 dB protection to just 11 dB – which would expose you to a noise level of 9 dB (100 dB of the tool minus 11 dB). Unfortunately, this is over the previously recommended noise level of 85 dB and can, therefore, permanently damage your hearing.

Failure to equip employees with hearing protection has contributed to a 25% rise in noise breaches

The Building Safety Group has revealed that noise breaches are up 25% on UK construction sites (compared to Q1 of 2019).

Bob Gowen, a volunteer for Hearing Link and an Electrician for over 35 years, believes that construction employees are “now [working] in noisier environments” than he did, yet “private contractors don’t supply ear protection for their staff.”

Gowen added that the main concern is that younger employees don’t seem to realise what the noise is doing to their hearing, so “getting them to wear protection is yet another problem.” Unfortunately, this means that “by the time they get into the 40 and 50 [age] bracket, it is usually too late to save their hearing,” Gowen noted.

This is especially concerning considering that hearing loss can seriously impact your life. Once Gowen started to suffer from hearing impairment, employees on construction sites often joked at his expense. “What I worry about is how other people with hearing loss who work in the construction industry cope. Unlike me, they may not be self-employed and, therefore, cannot simply walk away.”

Work-related hearing loss costs the UK’s economy up to £7bn per year

Hearing loss affects personal life massively, so much so that occupational deafness has the second-highest rate of disabled award status – meaning that the benefits are paid out from the Government.

In turn, not only does hearing loss impact someone’s life but the UK’s economy too. It’s estimated work-related hearing loss costs:

  • The NHS £500m a year
  • The UK insurance industry £70m a year in liability claims
  • The UK’s economy up to £7bn a year

These numbers are incredibly alarming considering hearing loss at work is preventable. Evidently, the way hearing protection is managed at work needs to change to protect workers and the UK.

What can employers do to protect their workers?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 50% of all hearing issues can be prevented through various health measures. So, how exactly should employers protect their workers’ hearing?

Under ‘The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005’ employers have a duty to reduce and control noise as much as possible on a site. There are a number of ways employers can protect their employees from hearing damage, such as:

  • Supply hearing protection
  • Purchasing quieter tools
  • Making machinery as quiet as possible by using pads to minimise vibration, using silent blades and nozzles, or replacing fans and motors
  • Looking out for alternative ways to carry out the construction work without the use of loud machinery – like doing tasks by hand
  • Limiting the amount of time workers are exposed to a noisy task

How to spot hearing loss

If you believe your employer hasn’t practiced sufficient hearing safety on site, or you are worried you have subjected yourself to loud levels of noise – there are signs to look out for.

Generally, occupational hearing loss is gradual, but you can spot symptoms to prevent any further damage. These include:

  • Ringing in ears
  • People sound like they are mumbling
  • It is hard to hear when there is noise in the background
  • Asking people to repeat what they said
  • Speech sounds muffled or distorted
  • Muffled hearing at the end of your working day

Once you lose your hearing, sadly you cannot get it back, so it’s important to always wear hearing guards in noisy environments. A good way to test your hearing is on your journey to work – play the radio at a volume just loud enough to hear. On your way home, play the radio again at the same volume, if you can’t hear it as well, you may have damaged your hearing.

There are also online hearing tests and apps, from Boots and WHO. In the case your hearing is compromised, use sufficient hearing protection and speak to your GP.

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