Protecting today’s workers in extreme noise environments is no small feat.
Every day, workers are put in extreme working conditions, sometimes resulting in irreversible and severe hearing loss due to improper use of — or lack of — hearing protecting. These issues no longer are being overlooked and rapidly are rising to the surface of top safety concerns in the workplace. In turn, new technological advances in personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent hearing loss is becoming a major topic of discussion.
According to NIOSH, “Approximately 30 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise on the job and an additional 9 million are at risk for hearing loss from other agents such as solvents and metals.” NIOSH notes that noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most common occupational diseases and the second most self-reported occupational illness or injury.
“Industry-specific studies reveal that 49 percent of males exposed to extreme occupational noise in the metal/nonmetal mining industry will have a hearing impairment by age 50 (versus 9 percent of the general population) rising to 70 percent by age 60,” says the agency. Other industries with high numbers of extreme noise cases include agriculture, construction, manufacturing, utilities, transportation and the military.
ISSUES IN HIGH NOISE ENVIRONMENTS
The issue at hand is two-part, the first being that workers need to be able to communicate when they are on the job. Maintaining the ability to communicate should not be a key factor in the reason behind extreme occupational hearing loss. Given that many high noise working environments make communication extremely difficult, it becomes even more important that employers seek external means to correct this issue, especially considering the need to communicate is not going to change. Workers must have a way to effectively communicate with others in the workplace without being forced or even tempted to remove their hearing protection.
Currently, workers often take off their hearing protection device, exposing themselves to a brief but damaging period of high-decibel noise levels. This type of permanent damage is taking place when a worker simply needs to get a message across, or listen for an instruction to be given. It stands to reason that if you provide a hearing protector that allows people to hear in extremely loud environments while protecting their hearing, workers will be more inclined to wear them. Not having to worry about missing a message from a boss or coworker allows for easier use of hearing protection technology. This especially is true when you consider that one of the leading reasons for occupational hearing loss is the removal of hearing protection, or not using the protection at all.
The second part of this pressing issue is that some of the current technology being used in extremely loud working environments only focuses on one part of the problem. Beyond being able to communicate effectively, it is imperative that hearing protection devices allow for workers to maintain situational awareness, meaning the ability to hear their surrounding area. Being able to hear a piece of machinery that is in use behind them or an explosion of some sort is just as important as communicating effectively.
High-noise environments potentially are dangerous to the employees working in them. More importantly, enabling workers to maintain situational awareness absolutely is critical to their safety. Historically, accidents related to these types of high-noise industries often could have been avoided if the worker had been more aware of his or her surroundings. Unfortunately, traditional hearing protection solutions (passive ear-plugs and ear muffs) inhibit the ability of workers to be aware of their surroundings, and although they may protect their hearing, they diminish situational awareness.
The latest technology has been able to enable clear and safe communication in extremely high noise environments. It also enables users to communicate in extreme high noise levels via face-to-face communication, two-way radio or Bluetooth through a cell phone without having to remove their hearing protection. Additionally, these devices can offer communication in short-range distances (up to 50 meters), and take work safety a step further by enabling use of the device where hazardous and potentially combustible materials are present, such as oil and gas facilities and chemical manufacturing plants.
On Dec. 6, 2010, OSHA published a press release stating, “Thousands of workers every year continue to suffer from preventable hearing loss due to high workplace noise levels. Since 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that more than 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss. In 2008 alone, BLS reported 22,000 hearing loss cases.”
There is good reason for OSHA to be concerned. Though OSHA has tried to devise the most effective way to reduce noise-induced hearing loss by trying to pass laws that limit occupational noise in the workplace, for those in extremely loud working environments, including mining, aviation and power utility industries, to name a few, reduced occupational noise might be an unrealistic option.
The recent proposals by OSHA and an attempt to force employers to engineer noise out of a workplace have proven to be unsuccessful. Companies have tried their best to reduce the sound measure of noise to a legal level of 82 decibels, costing millions or sometimes billions in failed preventative measures. Clearly, there needs to be another solution set in place.
In a previous announcement by OSHA relating to the interpretation, Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said, “There is sufficient evidence that hearing protection alone cannot prevent workers from suffering preventable hearing loss.”
Past solutions have not delivered meaningful results in significantly reducing noise-induced hearing loss, but new hearing protection technologies are changing this by addressing the reasons why workers remove their hearing protection.
These new technologies are able to reduce background noise to safe levels while allowing certain sounds through, enabling situational awareness and in turn facilitating all forms of communication. Before formally implementing any new regulations around extreme noise reduction in the workplace, OSHA — as well as private companies in the absence of new regulations — should evaluate the latest products and technologies available, many of which offer a real solution.
According to one of the most comprehensive reports ever produced on the cost of hearing loss to a developed economy — “The Economic Impact and Cost of Hearing Loss in Australia” — one in six people suffer from hearing loss and this will grow to one in four by 2050. It is estimated that approximately 1.5 percent of the eligible labor force was not employed by reason of hearing loss in 2005 with a total lost productivity cost of AU$6.7 billion. Given that the United States has a working population that is 15 times the size of Australia's work force, the loss of productivity due to hearing loss in this country could be estimated at over $100 billion.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT PROTECTION
Until recently, hearing protection devices have not delivered a functional solution because they have not allowed workers to hear in extreme environments while remaining protected. Imagine if eye protection glasses did not allow you to see, or foot protection boots did not allow you walk. Why would people use this protection?
Now, there is technologically out there that can solve this problem. Noise-induced hearing loss may be irreversible, but it also is preventable. This creates even more reasons to become familiar with technologically proficient headsets currently on the market for noise prevention and hearing protection.
New technology is now changing the effectiveness of hearing protection by delivering a functional alternative, one that is in line with the most personal protection equipment available today. Implementing this new technology would in turn be the answer to any regulatory concerns, saving employers the headache of dealing with new regulations, not to mention a lot of money in the long run. While some of these devices have a higher price point when compared to traditional, less advanced hearing protection devices, they can lead to reduced legal liability and fewer workers' compensation claims.
Noise suppression technologies synonymous with products used in extreme working conditions now are being combined with speech enhancement technology and embedded in smart ear plugs and ear muffs to deliver a highly functional hearing protection solution to workers in extreme working conditions across the globe.
The true breakthrough is being able to turn a once extreme and volatile environment into one where workers don't have to worry about long-term hearing damage or ineffective communication, but the job at hand. Some workers who already have tried this new technology have found that they are able to hear better with the headset in a noise ridden environment rather than without one in a quiet environment.
Developing advanced pieces of technology that contribute to the protection and safety of those working in excessive and extreme high noise environments is an ongoing process. The great news is that there already have been amazing breakthroughs in hearing protecting technology; ones that aren't just muffling the subject of extreme environment noise-induced hearing loss, but ones that are able to fix it!
David Cannington has 25+ years experience in international marketing, advertising and business development. His earlier career was spent driving marketing strategies for Fortune 1000 companies such a Cadbury Schweppes in Australia and UB Foods in the U.K. He then worked for McCann Erickson in Sydney and San Francisco driving advertising strategy and execution for global brands such as Nestle and Del Monte. He currently drives the global marketing activities for Sensear. David graduated with a bachelor's in business from Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.