I recently walked by a construction site in Brooklyn where the workers were using a saw that was so loud people a block away were plugging their ears with their fingers. Only one of the 3 workers at the site was wearing ear protection. That seems really bad.
Inspired by a forum post on reducing aquatic noise to improve marine animal welfare, I want to bring more attention to how loud noises on job sites effect human welfare.
One study referred to occupational noise induced hearing loss as "the most prevalent occupational disease in the world."
Hearing loss might seem like a relatively minor concern, but that's not the case for the people affected. DALY research from the WHO shows that hearing loss accounts for more DALYs than Alzheimer's, blindness, and drugs.
Of course, not all hearing loss is attributable to occupational noise. But I think the magnitude of the suffering shows the importance of reducing this common cause of hearing loss.
The TL;DR of this post is that:
- Hundreds of millions of people work in dangerously loud environments
- The workers at most job sites are resistant to wearing ear protection
- Presenting better information to workers might be a cost effective way to help
Loud workplaces can be really, really loud
Ship breaking, the act of taking defunct ships and breaking them down into their component parts, is a dangerous job in a lot of ways. The noise levels are no exception. One report looking at a site in India notes that workers can spend all day exposed to obscenely loud noise.
The first [problem] is the way work is organized, with workers exposed for prolonged periods to harmful noise. “Oxy-fuel torch cutters generally work in the same area all day and can be exposed to levels of sound exceeding 140 decibels for prolonged periods,” Majumder says. He has petitioned ship recycling companies to allow workers to change task or location on the work site, but with limited success.
If the below chart is to be believed, performing torch cutting work is like being directly next to a jet engine, or experiencing continuous rifle blasts. For an entire work day.
There are a lot of workers exposed to loud noises
While ship breaking is an extreme case, millions of other workers are exposed to potentially harmful noise. We can look at just one industry, construction, to illustrate the point. According to the CDC, "about 51% of all workers in construction have been exposed to hazardous noise."
About 8 million people work construction jobs in the US, or about 5% of the workforce. Applying that 5% number to the rest of the 3.32 billion workers across the globe, we get 166 million construction workers worldwide.
If 50% of them are exposed to hazardous noise, then around 83 million people around the globe are working construction jobs that could damage their ears.
Making matters worse, the gradual nature of hearing loss makes it less likely a worker will feel like noise induced damage is a problem. That could be why a high percentage of people working in loud environments rate their hearing as "good" or "excellent" when they are actually experiencing significant hearing loss.
Most construction workers don't wear proper ear protection
One easy solution to hearing loud noises all the time is known and cheap — wear ear protection that brings the decibels down to a non-harmful level. Unfortunately, that's not a very popular choice.
The CDC finds that "52% of noise-exposed construction workers report not wearing hearing protection."
Ear protection is not a high priority on the ship breaking sites, either:
Workers do not want to use ear plugs or ear muffs because they cannot hear each other and because of the humidity. They are sweating heavily and the ear plugs are uncomfortable. They also fear getting ear infections.
What I'm learning in all this is that I'm the outlier for wanting to wear foam ear plugs under noise cancelling headphones even to just ride the NYC subway.
Providing information seem to help, at least a little?
One promising study showed that improved awareness of the harms of excessive noise can make people more likely to wear ear protection in the future:
Among the participants, 58% already suffered from at least one hearing symptom, even though only 9.8% used earplugs to protect their hearing. After receiving information on noise-induced hearing loss, 56.3% were likely or somewhat likely to use earplugs in the future.
Unfortunately this was a relatively small study done on university students which might not have relevance to construction workers. But if it did, that'd be amazing! Providing information seems like a high-upside and cheap intervention to try , especially if it can be delivered digitally.
The US Department of Health produces quite a bit of educational material through their "It's a Noisy Planet" campaign, but it's aimed at educating parents of children 8-12 about preventing hearing loss. That's an odd demographic to target. How can we direct some of those resources toward the industries and people that need it most?
Similarly, I wonder how much it would cost to test targeted advertisements detailing the harms of hearing loss, especially to people who work in the most dangerous areas.
A future with healthier sound levels
The number of workers in dangerously loud environments only goes up when you factor in people repeatedly exposed to traffic noise, military noise, or sirens. Heck, the cabin of a commercial airliner apparently is loud enough to cause hearing damage after two hours.
I say we start with reducing noise damage on construction sites and keep going until we’re in a utopia where we care so much about protecting our hearing that we find a way to save billions of people from scourges like leaf blowers, public restroom hand dryers, and car horns.
I would also love to see decibel level signs in public places the way we have speed limit signs, so as to better educate the public better on when noise levels are getting dangerous.