Building a Better Approach to Hearing Health in Supply Chains & Construction
Updated: Sep 14
Construction is one of the largest employers in the UK employing around 2.2 million workers in over 300,000 organisations.
Meanwhile, the government has stated that its response to Coronavirus is to “Build, Build, Build” the infrastructure and homes we all need. Happy days for everyone and a ringing endorsement of the value of construction workers bring to the economy.
This article looks at some of the challenges for managing noise and hearing health in this important sector. Alternatively, contact WorkScreen or SMAS Worksafe directly here.
Why is hearing important in construction?
The UK’s builders are increasingly recognising the value of responding to both the “carrot” and the “stick” of managing hearing and noise in construction.
This is because taking steps to preserve hearing can directly affect your bottom line, via contract opportunities, productivity – not to mention by staying the right side of regulations, too. Meanwhile, the role of hearing in site safety and worker health is becoming more recognised, as we explore here.
Hearing & Worker Health
Whichever way you look at it, a safe, healthy workforce is a moral and commercial pre-requisite. Recent research demonstrates the role hearing plays in a number of long-term and immediate health issues, including mental well-being and cognitive decline.
In fact, hearing loss is officially the most common occupational disease in the EU. Numerous studies show construction and construction-related industries, such as carpentry are associated with high incidence of noise-induced tinnitus and that - compared to workers in finance (who are generally assumed to be a milder bunch…) - builders have the highest levels of tinnitus (with musicians). Studies also show that noise induced tinnitus is worse for construction workers who have been working longest and that
over 60% of builders demonstrated damaged hearing in noise sensitive frequencies .
Tinnitus in Construction
With around 10-12% of people affected, most people know someone with tinnitus. Except that in construction, a 2005 study found that the figure is actually 38% of construction workers reported tinnitus.
Whatever the perceived sound and volume of tinnitus, the potential for upset and stress this persistent sound can cause is significant – in extreme cases, it can disrupt work or interrupt sleep.
Because tinnitus is typically preventable, but never curable, we think it is arguably even more important than NIHL in construction.
Hearing Loss (NIHL) in Construction
The louder the noise and the longer the exposure, the higher the risk of Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) hearing problems. Long term problems associated with hearing loss and NIHL include tinnitus, stress and - more recently - cognitive decline and dementia. In fact, 10% of dementia is related to hearing loss.
This means that even though society commonly trivialises problem hearing, noise and hearing loss due to noise is linked to one of society’s predicted health emergencies.
Industrial hearing loss remains the occupational disease with the highest number of civil claims accounting for about 75% of all occupational disease claims
Absence, Mental Health & Wellbeing
Hearing problems are widely associated with fatigue, isolation, anxiety, isolation and cognitive decline. In 2006 a Dutch survey found that hearing impaired employees are five times more likely to take sick-days as a result of severe stress.
As our only non-line of site communication method, hearing can be a lifesaver, which means there is a strong relationship between hearing ability and safety on site.
Which is why a significant sector of the safety infrastructure relies on alarms, buzzers, instructions and warnings. And yet this could come to nothing if an individual’s hearing ability is compromised. Worse, it is nonsensical that the same workplace could actively damage the hearing it is relying on for safety. For this reason is vital to “baseline” an individual’s hearing, to understand their ability, as well as protect their hearing ongoing.
The HSE’s figures are illustrative of the link between hearing and safety:
Construction consistently records more fatalities than other sectors
Around 70% of fatalities potentially involve situations where warnings of situational awareness could have contributed
In terms of injuries in construction, WorkScreen believes around 10% of injuries may have hearing as a contributory factor
Hearing and Site Communication
This definition of a banksman demonstrates the central role hearing and communication play in the construction industry:
A Vehicle Banksman will be the eyes and ears of the crane or truck driver and make sure any manoeuvres they make are safe and don’t put the driver or anyone else in danger.
Productivity & Errors
At its very worst, a mistake in construction can mean injury or death. Fortunately, it is more common for mistakes to cost a little individual time to correct, although every site manager has an example of an error that spiralled into something significant in terms of time and money – potentially running to millions of pounds. Hearing loss can contribute to accidents and mistakes through fatigue or a communication problem.
So while the nightmare scenario of a serious accident is increasingly rare, the effects of NIHL hearing loss go right to the bottom line on a daily basis through absenteeism or mistakes on the job.
Tender Requirements, CSR & the Law
The UK is a global leader in health and safety culture, which means leading construction specifiers such as Bloor, Midas, Persimmon and more increasingly expect and demand their contractors to demonstrate alignment with the relevant health and safety regulations as a precondition for doing business. SMAS Worksafe exists to manage this essential supply chain.
SMAS Worksafe Guidance for the H&S Policy and H&S Policy Statement – Responsibility and Arrangements
The organisation is expected to document and implement an appropriate health & safety policy.
The Responsibilities section of the policy must list the personalities with specific health & safety duties within the organisation.
The Arrangements within the Policy should be appropriate and applicable to the organisations activities and undertakings.
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 – Regulation 9 Health Surveillance underpin this requirement
If the risk assessment indicates that there is a risk to the health of his employees who are, or are liable to be, exposed to noise, the employer shall ensure that such employees are placed under suitable health surveillance, which shall include testing of their hearing.
Sources of Noise in Construction
Construction and building has a complex mix of noise sources and reverberant environments – often in close proximity. Particularly relevant are hand tools/power tools and specialist plant, where operators are in contact with the work piece – potentially for many hours a day – e.g. carpentry, earthworks, piling etc
Specialised machinery – pumps, boring, mixing
Handtools – saws, hammers, files etc
Powertools – drills, power saws, grinders, nailguns
Music – loud playing music can add to the noise environment and duration
Heavy plant – tracked vehicles, engines and general noise
Specialist machinery – boring, mixing, air compressors all create high levels of noise
It is also key to consider other contributory factors concerning noise on building or construction sites:
Location and environment – empty buildings and hard surfaces (e.g. concrete) cause reverberation which contributes to the environmental noise floor, effectively creating a positive feedback loop of increasing noise
Noise from colleagues and tasks in the same space
Sudden extreme noise – accidents and mishaps on site can create EXTREME noise that could permanently damage hearing.
Challenges specific to construction
Besides the sheer diversity of activity & sources of noise, the construction sector faces a unique combination of challenges for health and safety – and hearing - which have traditionally made it challenging to address NIHL and H&S on site. WorkScreen clients have turned to us to flexibly address the issues below:
Subcontractors & contractors: Specialist staff and contractors require protection like any other workers. However, since surveillance is the responsibility of the employer there is an opportunity for considerable confusion around the arrangements, even if there is general agreement that hearing tests are essential for on-site safety.
Unexpected and “second hand” noise exposure: Construction sites are so dynamic and diverse that a majority of workers can be considered at some risk from noise – if not from their own activities, then from accidental noise and ambient noise levels. Companies looking to protect their staff and the organisation typically like to include all site staff as candidates for hearing surveillance.
Numbers of staff on site: The number of workers on a construction site at any one time can change from day to day as specialist activities are required. This can make it difficult to schedule on-site H&S tasks to monitor all staff in a cost effective manner.
Workers who “Do not arrive" to tests: The ideal building site or construction company is a busy place, with many interlinking dependencies – it is not surprising therefore that no shows are commonplace to occupational health surveillance test. The ultimate hearing surveillance system is therefore flexible to the movements of staff without adding costs or getting in the way of essential construction activities.
Cost control: The construction industry operates on notoriously tight margins, where foresight, cost control and planning is everything.
Large sites/ multiple sites: Mega-projects and large organisations may have thousands of staff on site at any one time. Often working remotely and with limited supervision compared to desk-workers, understanding the risks at first hand and bringing staff in for training or surveillance is uniquely challenging for construction.
Improving noise awareness in construction
Get organised – recognise the risks of noise and the importance of hearing in your organisation. Check out our pages on hearing surveillance or visit the SMAS worksafe website, UKHCA or the HSE
Train staff with regular toolbox talks - One of the biggest issues with hearing problems is that they are generally irreversible and they can be slow to act – once individuals notice the effects, it can be too late. Awareness and prevention are therefore essential components in any effective hearing surveillance system.
Check what is required - The HSE, your insurers and any trade body, or accreditation agency can all advise what you need to do. The simplest starting point is generally accepted to be the HSE website, which covers the noise action levels and the action to take.
Conduct a staff noise & risk review - Some staff will be more at risk than others from noise at work. Understanding this – whether it is a function of their job, role or medical history is important. This review should include measuring their current hearing health and hearing ability. Meanwhile, good hearing may be important for some roles – potentially even safety critical.
Hearing protection and signage - Hearing protection and signage are some of the minimum standards that are expected by the HSE. Hearing protection – and the correct training how to use it – is especially useful, since PPE is s permanent and portable reminder to workers that their health is valuable. Meanwhile, signage provides the information of where risk is present and what is expected – another chance to reinforce standards. Clear, prominent signage is also – where necessary – a good resource to hold workers to account if standards are not being met.
Implement hearing surveillance – in addition to their primary role of monitoring hearing ability, surveillance hearing tests reinforce staff training and improve hearing health awareness. Hearing surveillance also provides an objective feedback loop to your control of noise measures.
WorkScreen & SMAS Worksafe
WorkScreen supports better hearing health by making it easier than ever to test hearing in construction. Our hearing tests can form a key part of your hearing surveillance audiometry and conservation program and will inform your understanding of an individual’s hearing ability.
As a user-operated solution, WorkScreen is safe & no-contact in the COVID world. It is also fast and flexible for use without specialist training in any suitable location.
We are founder members of UKHCA and have recently partnered with SMAS worksafe to make effective H&S accreditation even easier and lower cost for SMAS worksafe members.
SMAS Worksafe members can access exclusive service and pricing offers by contacting us though our dedicated contact page
If you are a SMAS worksafe member, click here
To contact WorkScreen directly, click here