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Jan Quiros in front of a camera.

Construction worker Jeannette Quiros demonstrating how to wear a protective foam earplug.

Help for the naked ear

U professor studies hearing protection for construction workers

By Mame Osteen

From eNews, April 19, 2007

Chain saws...pile drivers...roaring bulldozers.... Just thinking of them may give you a headache! Imagine what their decibels do to the delicate ear cilia of the construction workers exposed to them every day. It's no wonder that, according to some researchers, today's average 25-year-old construction worker has the hearing of a 50-year-old.

Noise-induced hearing loss is the most common occupational disease in the United States. It affects more than 10 million U.S. workers, impairing their quality of life and contributing to work-related accidents. It takes a particular toll on the nation's five million construction workers, who generally experience the highest level of noise, and who, unlike workers in the field of manufacturing, are minimally protected by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

University of Minnesota associate professor Madeleine Kerr has worked for the last 17 years to protect the hearing of these vulnerable workers. In fact, by the time noise and hearing loss was named a national research priority by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1996, she had been researching the subject for seven years. Her efforts have been nationally recognized. In 2006, she received the Honor a Researcher Award from the Midwest Nursing Research Society, acknowledging her important contribution to public health nursing research.

Working with workers

With help from the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group representing 20 Twin Cities unions, Kerr has built a strong network of resources and connections to fuel her ongoing research.

Her recently completed study involved 723 Twin Cities carpenters, laborers, and roofers. They participated in half-hour sessions with computers Kerr had programmed with audio, video, and graphics of real-life construction situations, paired with educational messages about workplace noise, the threat it poses to hearing, and how to protect against noise-induced hearing loss.

Madeleine Kerr with some cast members
Madeleine Kerr (second from left) with some cast members for the Latino construction worker video.

The sessions were interactive; users asked, for example, to determine the safety of noises made by various machines from chop saws to snowmobiles. The computer responded with data about each specific noise.

Some workers also received personalized messages that addressed their perceived barriers to the use of hearing protectors. For example, if they told the computer they thought they'd have difficulty communicating with co-workers while wearing them, they were shown a video clip explaining that, assuming normal hearing, they would actually be able to communicate better if they wore the protection.

Results of Kerr's study will be published in the March 2007 issue of Canadian Journal of Nursing Research.

The Latino study

While reviewing the ethnicity distribution of the construction study, Kerr found that Latinos comprised a growing segment--23 percent--of construction workers. "I realized that there were Latinos participating in my research who would have preferred to do so using Spanish language," says Kerr. She decided to reach out to them directly. In 2004,she secured a $548,000 grant from the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders to build on her previous work.

Researching hearing loss among Latino workers was a natural for Kerr, who speaks Spanish and has previous research experience with Mexican-American migrant farm workers. A week at a Spanish immersion camp last summer helped Kerr prepare for her new challenge.