In the oil and gas industry, hearing protection struggles to command the same level of attention from the workforce as other personal safety equipment such as hard hats. Brad Witt, director of hearing conservation at Honeywell Industrial Safety, provides four top tips for ensuring that oilfield workers use their earplugs.
To pay for my studies at graduate school, where I was preparing to become an audiologist, I worked one summer as a roustabout on an offshore oil installation. I saw firsthand the critical need, and widespread disdain, for hearing protection.
While it was a first-rate operation with solid safety practices, there were two lost time injuries (LTI) that summer that left workers with permanent disabilities. Poor hearing was a contributing cause of both accidents. A derrickman thought he heard the driller say to lay the pipe a certain direction, but was mistaken; as a result, he lost a finger. A roustabout thought he heard the control operator say the steam line was not pressurised, when it actually was; consequently, he lost an eye.
In the 40 years since that summer job, technology and safety practices in the oil and gas industry have progressed exponentially. However, hearing protection continues to be a challenge.
Mobile workforces, reliance upon contractors and intermittent noise exposures are problematic when it comes to enforcing good hearing protection standards. Recent data from the Petroleum Safety Authority of Norway show that at least 37% of workers in offshore oil production are affected by noise to some extent and the UK’s Health and Safety Executive similarly reports that hearing loss remains one of the most common health risks for the offshore workforce.
For many years, a culture that pervaded the oilfield assumed that hardhats were required, but earplugs were optional. High rates of hearing loss in the industry is the price that was paid.
Here are four ways of making sure hearing loss becomes a thing of the past in the oil and gas industry.
- Choose protection that allows communication
A landmark study showed that the major reason workers do not wear earplugs more consistently is interference with communication and job performance. In a noisy worksite filled with warning signals and moving equipment, the common excuse for not wearing hearing protection is: “I would rather lose my hearing than lose my life.”
This attitude is particularly prevalent in the oil and gas industry. If a worker feels the earplugs are isolating him from co-workers and warning signals, he will avoid the earplugs or simply insert them halfway, providing minimal protection. However, it is a myth to assume critical communication and hearing protection cannot co-exist.
Studies show that communication levels improve for most workers wearing protectors in loud noise. Hearing protectors are now available that reduce the overprotection and communication interference found in conventional protectors. Employers should offer workers a variety of hearing protectors designed with ‘uniform attenuation’ across frequencies, which makes them more speech-friendly.
Several earplugs and earmuffs have been designed to maximise communication through uniform attenuation, allowing wearers to hear important sounds (co-workers, warning signals, radio and communication systems, maintenance sounds from machinery) more naturally while still gaining protection from harmful noise levels.
Electronic earmuffs can also enhance communication by amplifying ambient sounds (including speech and warning signals) to a safe level, while protecting against louder, more damaging noise.
- Keep it clean
Earplugs have the unique distinction of being a piece of personal protection equipment (PPE) that is worn inside the body. Although the ear canal is remarkably resilient toward dirt, a roll-down foam earplug will transmit whatever is on the fingers into the ear – and oilfield workers are not known for their clean hands. It is not unusual to hear a worker justify their non-use of hearing protection with anecdotal (and highly unlikely) stories of an acquaintance that had ear infections and went deaf.
Manufacturers have responded with a wide selection of earplugs that do not require touching of the part that is inserted into the ear such as no-roll earplugs or reusable earplugs with stem handles. With this in mind, employers should offer a variety of disposable and reusable protectors, including styles with insertion stems for particularly dirty jobs.
- Make it easily accessible
Noisy tasks in the oilfield are varied and often remote. Workers will typically forego hearing protection if it means having to return to their locker to retrieve the earplugs, often assuming they will only be on this noisy job a few minutes. Yet intermittent unprotected noise exposures have a cumulative effect in hearing damage.
One of our goals in protecting workers in oil and gas is to make the PPE so easily accessible, the excuse of remoteness is removed. In terms of hearing protection, this means either moving dispensers closer to the noisy job, or ensuring workers carry their PPE with them.
By regulation, reusable earplugs are sold in carrying cases easily slipped into a pocket or attached to a belt loop or hard hat. Belt clips are available to make earmuffs easily at hand when the job suddenly turns noisy.
Employers should ensure each job is started with a safety briefing in which all relevant PPE is identified and taken by the workers. Hearing protection must be a required part of a worker’s gear for anybody stepping out of the crew room, just like the hard hat.
- Make sure each person knows how to use it
Noise-exposed workers have few inherent incentives for protecting themselves from loud noise. After all, unlike other injuries in the oil and gas industry, noise-induced hearing loss causes no pain or visible trauma, leaves no visible bruises or scars, is unnoticeable in its earliest stages, and generally takes years to diagnose.
Studies repeatedly show that the best format for training when it comes to hearing protection is individual training. One-on-one training far exceeds group training in effectiveness of hearing protector fit, even if the training consists merely of a one-minute explanation of how to fit earplugs at the time of new hire orientation. Workers with any level of individual training in fitting earplugs have proven to be much better protected, and more likely to achieve the protection levels that are shown on the package.
For example, one large company servicing North Sea offshore platforms that Honeywell worked with addressed the challenge by initiating fit-testing for several hundred of their noise-exposed workers. Workers were instructed to fit their usual pair of earplugs in the way they were normally worn. On that first ‘status quo’ test, 30% of the workers failed to achieve the desired 16 dB of protection, a level based on employees’ time-weighted average noise levels.
For this particular population, nearly all workers were adequately protected with one of just three different models of conventional earplugs (including different sizes). But it was critical to individually test and train each worker to confirm the fit. Any employer who provides earplugs with no training is laying the groundwork for a noise-induced hearing loss on the job.
Noise-induced hearing loss does not need to be simply the price one pays for working in the oil and gas industry. By providing adequate protection that addresses communication, hygiene and ease of use, a safety manager removes the biggest obstacles to hearing protection. And through individual training and fit-testing, workers receive the best chance of making sure that protection is effective.