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$vuetify.icons.faPhone1300 650 620

Listen up

Listen up

{{ tag.label }} {{ tag.label }} $vuetify.icons.faTimes
Noisy worksites pose a serious threat to your hearing. The message is simple: if you can’t turn the sound down, it’s time to get serious about protecting your ears.

Gabrielle Chariton

Author

Contributor to Housing

Have you ever stopped to consider how precious your hearing is? The ability to listen keeps us connected to the world around us, underpins our situational awareness and warns us of potential unseen hazards. In fact, Professor David McAlpine, Academic Director of Macquarie University Hearing, likens hearing to ‘the eyes in the back of our head’. 

Hearing is also precious because once it’s damaged, or gone, there’s no way of getting it back. And if you’re a builder or contractor who spends a lot of time onsite, there’s a good chance that you’re being exposed to the type of high-intensity noises that can harm your hearing. 

‘In the construction industry, the damaging levels of noise are constantly present. It’s just part of the job. But part of the job shouldn’t be going deaf,’ David says.

How loud sounds affect hearing

‘The inner ear is where all the mechanical things go on that turn sound energy, or vibrations, into neural activity in the brain,’ David explains. 

‘The sensory cells, called hair cells, vibrate at the frequencies of the sound you’re hearing. When you shake something too much, it gets broken – and that’s essentially what happens to your hair cells with over-exposure to loud sounds.’ 

The damage sustained by repeated exposure to noisy environments is irreversible and cumulative. ‘The inner ear is a non-regenerative part of your ear. These cells are super specialised – you get one shot at them and when they're gone, they're gone forever,’ David says.

It’s important to plan properly if you want to avoid exposing workers to high noise levels
So how loud is too loud? 

The intensity of sound is measured in decibels. As a guide, normal conversation is around 50-60 decibels (dB); a jackhammer clocks in at 140dB. 

Jane Fayad, HIA Manager – Safety Solutions, says the specific WHS regulations relating to noise exposure vary in all states and territories. ‘It’s not just workers on the construction site who are at risk of hearing problems because of loud noises, other people are at risk too. This includes those working around noisy machinery, even if they are not directly using the tools, or people who are visiting the site.’

David adds that the safe exposure time then halves for every three decibels up from there: four hours at 88dB; two hours at 91dB, etc. And SafeWork Australia states that workers must not be exposed to a noise level above 140dB. 

Onsite noise levels can be monitored using a noise meter. Phone apps, such as Decibel X, are a cheaper and convenient alternative, but may not be as reliable. As a guide, if the environment is so loud that you need to raise your voice to speak to someone one metre away, your hearing is probably at risk. 

Why builders are at risk

‘In the residential building industry, you might have up to 10 trades onsite at once,’ Jane says. ‘When you have people using noisy tools such as a jackhammer, an excavator or a compound saw, normally the person using that machinery will wear ear protection. The problem is that all the people around them are also being exposed to that noise. 

‘That really is the biggest issue that we need to address: when noisy machinery is being used on a building site, everyone on that building site – not just the person operating the machine – will be at risk without adequate ear protection.’ 

Noise-induced hearing loss can start to happen to us at any age – even in our teens and twenties, however it is largely preventable with vigilance and compliance. ‘It’s about adopting good practices and wearing that PPE from a young age,’ Jane says. ‘It doesn't matter if you're 20, 40 or 60 – start making the effort to protect your hearing right now.’

She adds it’s important to plan properly if you want to avoid exposing workers to high noise levels. ‘There are lots of steps that you can take during the planning stage, such as scheduling noisier activities for when there are fewer workers in the area, preparing guidance for workers, preparing estimates for the amount of noise workers will be exposed to, and even designating a noise coordinator.’

Many builders find ear plugs more convenient but they must be worn correctly to be effective
Cover up

Both earplugs and earmuffs are acceptable forms of PPE and can reduce noise by 15 to 30dB. Earmuffs are bulkier and heavier to wear but do cover the ear completely and offer reliable protection. Many builders find ear plugs more convenient, however Jane says they must be worn correctly to be effective. 

‘A lot of people say, “she’ll be right”. They don’t understand the damage that something as simple as a carpenter using a nail gun can do to your ears, or if someone's using a jackhammer…you can't make that less noisy,’ Jane says. ‘So please, put on your earmuffs or put your ear plugs in properly. Make sure that the PPE you provide is highly effective and suitable for the work being carried out. It should be comfortable and compatible with other equipment. You should also provide a variety of hearing PPE and ensure it meets the relevant standards.’

Smart scheduling

Builders can minimise their team’s exposure to harmful levels of noise through scheduling. ‘While the noisy trades are onsite – the concreters, excavators and carpenters using their saws – try to schedule these crews separately,’ Jane suggests. Other strategies include moving workers away from the noise source or restricting access to noisy areas and rotating workers performing noisy tasks.

Turn it down

While noise is never going to be eliminated from a building site, there are ways to manage the volume. Where possible, choose pneumatic tools, which operate more quietly. SafeWork NSW suggests extending the guard and lining equipment with acoustic dampening material to reduce noise; fitting silencers and baffles to machinery and combustion engines; checking the noise levels of equipment before purchase; and ensuring tools and machinery are well maintained for quieter operation.

Managing hearing loss

Jane describes hearing loss as ‘slow and silent’ because it sneaks up on us, gradually worsening over time. Some early signs that your hearing may be beginning to deteriorate include: 

  • tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • speech sounds muffled, you can’t distinguish consonant sounds
  • you’re always needing to turn up the TV or radio
  • difficulty hearing on the phone.

If you notice any of these symptoms, David says the best course of action is to visit a GP for a referral to an audiologist. They can test your hearing and provide expert advice on how to prevent or minimise any further damage. ‘Currently the only therapies for hearing loss are hearing aids and a Cochlear implant. So, if your hearing is important to you, protect it,’ he says.

Noise reduction checklist
  • Position noisy work away from quiet work
  • Ensure tools/equipment and noise controls are maintained to minimise noise
  • Plan work to minimise the time workers are exposed to excessive noise
  • Ensure compliant hearing protectors are supplied to, and correctly worn by, anyone who may be exposed to a noise hazard.
For more information, contact HIA Safety Solutions on 1300 650 620 or email us.

First published on 29 August 2022

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