OSHA – Use of Music Headphones on Construction Sites

There was an OSHA Letter of Interpretation on September 6, 2019 that is starting to get more attention.  In that letter OSHA comments on music headphones used by construction workers while on a jobsite.  In it, OSHA states:

“The use of headphones on a construction site may be permissible at managerial discretion, unless such use creates or augments other hazards apart from noise. For example, struck-by hazards are one of the four leading causes of death in construction. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that employees are not exposed to struck-by hazards while performing their work. Listening to music may produce a safety hazard by masking environmental sounds that need to be heard, especially on active construction sites where attention to moving equipment, heavy machinery, vehicle traffic, and safety warning signals may be compromised.”

This is notable not only because it is vaguer than the usual LOI, but it fails to really address the issue.  OSHA acknowledges that headphones “may” produce a hazard my masking the sounds of the workplace and are more apt to be involved in a struck by accident.  Yet it is the employer’s discretion whether to allow their use on the site.

We do agree that the use of headphones, ear buds, etc. or the use of portable music players and such mask the noise on a normally noisy construction site and additionally prevents any emergency signals or verbal commands from being effectively transmitted to the wearer.  This issue, earphones, headphones and portable music players have been an item on our safety checklists for several years and we will continue to do so because it is a hazard to the user and the surrounding workers.

Additionally, there is years of medical evidence that the use of headphone, earphone and ear plugs cause damage to ears the same way other loud noises do, resulting in hearing loss. Earbuds and headphones sit in or close to the ear canal, which places sound very close to the inner ear. This proximity has the effect of boosting sound by an equivalent of nine decibels. That’s like going from a tinkling bell to the drone of a lawn mower. Also, many people boost the volume to block out background noise.

Exposure to loud sounds, at or above 85 decibels, is a leading cause of hearing loss, because it damages the cells of your inner ear. When it comes to noise-induced hearing loss, it all depends on how loud and how long. Even moderately loud sound can cause hearing damage if you listen for too long. For example, listening to a 90-decibel sound for three hours can be as damaging as hearing a 155 decibel-sound (like a jet taking off) for just thirty seconds.

The kicker to all this is that the worker, who wore the earphones through his/her workday every day and then experiences hearing loss years later can file a Workers Compensation claim against the employer (current or otherwise) because of the unmoderated use of earphones was allowed while working.

Our recommendation is to prohibit the use of earphones or any similar devices as well as portable music players on your construction jobsite for all of the reasons stated here.  The construction workplace is a very hazardous site and the 5 senses of a worker must be available for the best protection from injury.  So when we ask a worker to put away the music or take off the earphones and are questioned by the worker as to why, you are free to use our standard response: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around, this is a workplace damnit”

I know I’m showing my age but I would use a Beatles lyric from my era, if one was relevant so Talking Heads has to do for now.