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NRCA's comments about DOL's hearing conservation program for construction workers, November 2002

On Nov. 4, 2002, NRCA submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Labor about its advanced notice of proposed rulemaking to revise the hearing conservation program for roofing workers. NRCA's comments follow.

Nov. 4, 2002

U.S. Department of Labor
OSHA Docket Office
Room N-2625
200 Constitution Ave. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20210

Re: Docket No. H-011G — Hearing conservation program for construction workers

Dear Sir/Madam:

On behalf of the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA), I appreciate the opportunity to provide comments about the Department of Labor's (DOL's) advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to revise the construction noise standards to include a hearing conservation component for the construction industry that provides a level of protection similar to that afforded to workers in general industry. Established in 1886, NRCA is one of the construction industry's oldest trade associations and the voice of professional roofing contractors worldwide. NRCA is an association of roofing, roof deck, and waterproofing contractors; industry-related associate members, including manufacturers, distributors, architects, consultants, engineers, and city, state, and government agencies; and international members. NRCA has more than 4,600 members from all 50 states and 54 countries and is affiliated with 105 local, state, regional and international roofing contractor associations.

I. Background

The federal government has established a general industry standard that provides more protection than the construction industry standard. Specifically, the ANPR notes that workers in general industry are covered by the agency's Occupational Noise Standard (29 CFR 1910.95), which "provides more protection for general industry workers than the construction standards provide for construction workers." In cases when employees are subjected to noise doses exceeding permissible levels, OSHA points out that 29 CFR 1926.52(b) states, "feasible administrative or engineering controls must be used to lower employee noise exposure." And if such controls fail to reduce sound to permissible levels, OSHA further notes that "personal protective equipment must be provided and used to reduce noise exposure to within those levels." NRCA's comments will focus on whether general industry requirements should be applied to the construction industry.

II. Specific concerns

In general, NRCA believes that the application of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's (NIOSH's) recommended noise exposure levels for general industry to the construction industry will prove a daunting task with few realized benefits. NRCA does not dispute the need for appropriate hearing protection for construction workers exposed to dangerous noise levels, but the need for extension of the general industry remains in question. The standard would be extraordinarily difficult for the construction industry to implement and OSHA to monitor effectively. But NRCA has two specific concerns that it would like to highlight today—available data and risk analysis.

    Current data

    In the ANPR, OSHA states that it commissioned several studies during 1997-99 to gather information germane to the construction population and it believes these studies demonstrate that "many U.S. construction workers suffer hearing loss from noise at their work sites." OSHA also states that in a study written by Dale Hattis, Ph.D., and Anna Makri, the authors conclude that "it is clear that construction worker noise-induced hearing loss is a significant national problem." It may be true that some construction workers are exposed to levels that exceed the NIOSH recommended levels—OSHA notes that boilermakers and ironworkers are at an elevated risk of exposure because of pneumatic tool use. It is equally true, however, that there exists a scarcity of data confirming hearing loss risk in other construction trades, such as electricians, HVAC workers, plumbers and roofing workers.

    Regarding specific exposure limits, it is unclear if roofing work reaches the threshold NIOSH issued in 1998 of a recommended maximum time-weighted average level of (TWA) of 85 dBA over an eight-hour workday. In fact, it is fair to say that NRCA has seen little, if any, evidence that hearing loss is a significant health risk in the roofing industry. Unless heavy motorized mechanical equipment is being used proximate to roofing workers, it is assumed roofing workers are not exposed to these thresholds, given the nature of roofing work. One caveat should be offered on this point: it is certainly possible that there are instances in which employees of construction contractors are performing construction improvements or routine maintenance on existing general industry facilities, but in those cases emphasis should be on the elimination or abatement of noise hazards peculiar to those environments because the potential hazards are not in the contractors' direct control.

    Risk analysis

    NRCA strongly believes that OSHA should consider the risks of applying the general industry standard to construction. NRCA has great confidence that NIOSH availed itself of the best available, peer-reviewed science and supporting studies when it published Criteria for a Recommended Standard; Occupational Exposure to Noise; Revised Criteria in 1998. But NRCA has strong doubts whether the working environment for roofing workers meets the noise level thresholds outlined in the report. NRCA believes this question must be answered before proceeding with the rulemaking process, given the risk tradeoffs involved for the average construction worker.

    Standards designed for industrial workplaces are not fully transferable, and perhaps in direct opposition to other safety goals, to the construction environment. Workers in the roofing industry face many hazards, including burns, electrocutions, chemical exposures, hoisting accidents and falls. As such, roofing workers must be able to hear and perceive the sounds of danger if they are to avoid potentially fatal accidents. In fact, the data cited in the ANPR supports NRCA's concern that construction workers' ability to hear warning signals not be compromised in the workplace. Dr. Alice Suter's study explicitly acknowledges that construction workers must be able to hear and clearly identify the location of warning signals, backup alarms and spoken or shouted communication given the dangers inherent to construction work. The ANPR notes, "workers who already have incurred hearing impairments and who must wear hearing protectors will experience difficulty hearing in those situations."

    The ANPR also states that the "use of hearing protectors by those with pre-existing hearing loss may further interfere with the workers' ability to hear and perceive the sounds of danger. Although these difficulties occur in many occupational settings, they are a particular problem in construction, where a variety of moving vehicles, back-up alarms and other signals and activities may occur simultaneously." In roofing work, the danger is magnified because workers most often work in elevated locations. As such, workers must be able to hear coworkers warnings of danger—warnings that are most commonly communicated verbally. Suffice it to say, fall protection is the industry's number one safety concern. In fact, NRCA has established a partnership program with OSHA and the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers to prevent workplace accidents unique to the roofing profession.
III. Conclusion

Again, on behalf of NRCA, I want to thank you for providing the public the opportunity to comment on DOL's interest in efforts to enhance hearing conservation. NRCA believes the existing regulatory regime, albeit imperfect, is preferable to a blanket application of the general industry standard on the construction industry, given the construction industry's unique safety needs in general, and the roofing industry's in particular. NRCA encourages DOL to give strong consideration to the concerns listed above as well to those comments offered by other informed and well-intentioned parties.


R. Craig Silvertooth
Director of Federal Affairs

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