.Jonathan Newell finds out how embedded sensors are helping prevent workers from suffering noise induced hearing loss
In an effort to combat Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL), often referred to as the hidden industrial injury, Honeywell Industrial Safety is tackling the issue with the introduction of embedded sensors within the personal protective equipment (PPE) range of products that it supplies in order to monitor the sound levels that workers are exposed to over a period of time and not just transient spikes of noise.
With this technological enhancement to passive safety products, the company is bringing an active component to play as a means of preventing hearing degradation through detection of trends through monitoring and taking measures to provide further protection.
Honeywell has also launched an awareness campaign to help employers ensure industrial workers receive effective hearing protection and training in the workplace and avoid the life-changing consequences of hearing damage.
Tackling the hidden injury
According to a 2015 report from the World Health Organisation, NIHL is the most commonly reported work-related injury globally and in the UK alone, around 17,000 people suffer from some degrees of deafness, ringing in the ears or other ear conditions caused by excessive noise at work.
Despite being “hidden”, NIHL is permanent, irreparable and irreversible and the WHO takes it very seriously, defining tinnitus as the third most serious non-deadly medical condition for humans.
According to Honeywell Industrial Safety’s EMEA Hearing Conservation Manager, Kjersti Rutlin, the use of effective noise exposure monitoring strategies in the workplace could have prevented most of these injuries because she believes that the best levels of hearing protection for industrial workers can only really be provided if the real noise levels that they’re exposed to over time are known and understood.
Measuring noise exposure
One of the problems of monitoring noise exposure is the way regulations specify average noise levels in the environment rather than actual exposure measured at the point of “impact”. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 mandates that employers provide a worker with hearing protection if their daily or weekly average exposure exceeds 85 decibels.
However, according to Rutlin, this isn’t enough to safeguard the workforce’s hearing effectively. Noise exposure levels can vary significantly throughout the day and from one location to another within an industrial environment and so there is an element of guesswork in knowing whether the 85 decibel threshold is exceeded.
To measure sound levels in selected locations is a traditional method of determining whether workers need to be supplied with hearing protection and sound level meters have been found to be useful in measuring sound pressure levels in specific locations. However, these devices don’t account for any variations in these levels, which can vary significantly depending on the location chosen for metering.
Measuring noise dose in the ear
An alternative to open space metering is the use of noise dosimeters, such as the Quietpro QP100Ex from Honeywell, which measures every sound that reaches the wearer’s ear drum. Because it’s worn by the worker in the ear, the device is independent of location. It provides an accurate picture of noise levels across different locations enabling safety managers to then calculate an average of the noise levels workers have been exposed to over time.
However these devices don’t provide information on the PPE’s attenuation levels, which is key to knowing the actual noise exposure levels. By using a combined approach of measuring noise levels reaching the ear as well as environmental noise levels measured by traditional sound level meters, safety managers can gain insight into the risk levels of the environment, the attenuation effectiveness of the PPE supplied to workers and the noise exposure levels that they experience.
The use of such smart, connected sensors helps to build an overall picture of the sound environment and enables protection strategies to be built to ensure that not only is the organisation meeting its regulatory compliance requirements, but also more importantly protecting its workers from suffering NIHL through continued exposure or transient peaks in sound levels.
“By embedding sensors in PPE to capture data at the point where the individual enters the working environment, the latest connected technology also enables safety and plant managers to track and analyse noise exposure data over time. This allows them to determine exactly how long a worker can stay on task and still be safe or change working patterns accordingly if necessary,” explained Rutlin.
Armed with real-time data and intelligence, plant and safety managers can also check whether workers are wearing the right type of protective equipment and have had the correct training.
The ability to communicate with other workers is often an essential element of productivity which hearing protection can often interrupt. The Quietpro QP100Ex has therefore been designed to enable communication through the headset whilst still providing hearing protection. By eliminating ambient sound, the workers voice is always clear and presented at the right sound level without interference from other sounds. This can even be achieved when wearing other sound-muffling equipment such as respirators or welding masks.
However, both the communications technology and the protective capability of the equipment is highly dependent on it being fitted correctly, something which Rutlin explains is easily achieved with the Quietpro QP100Ex.
“Fitting the device activates an automatic fit-test during start-up, which tells the worker when they have fitted their hearing protection correctly. It also monitors sound exposure continuously, alerting the user whenever the permissible sound exposure level has been reached,” she said.
Another advantage of this high technology combined communication and ear protection system includes the ability to adapt to changing noise levels and selectively amplify certain sounds enabling the workers to remain aware of their surroundings and make rapid assessments of any changes to the environment and potential threats.
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