Terry McDonald: Site Safety

Working in an industrial environment means being exposed to high noise levels, so it's critical for employers to provide hearing protection, and for employees to use it!

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Do you take a multivitamin? Our doctors tell us we should, especially once we’ve reached a certain age, but it’s kind of hard to get in the habit because there’s no immediate reward. They may be doing you a lot of good, but they don’t make you feel any better that day, so it’s an easy thing to drop by the wayside. In the same way there are things we should protect ourselves from in the industrial workplace that only cause damage over the long run, so it’s easy to neglect to do so on a daily basis. In this instance I’m referring to hearing protection, and the resulting loss you will definitely experience if you don’t take this threat seriously.

I don’t know about you, but as you get older you often find yourself giving advice to younger people that they never asked for—becoming the very person you once said you’d never become, in other words. The problem is twofold: you really do know more about life than they do, and you can remember exactly what it feels like to be their age and really think that you’re immortal. I see teenagers and those in their early twenties listening to music in their cars that’s so loud I don’t see how they could be enjoying it, and if you were to actually approach them and knock on the window to warn them about hearing loss they’d look at you like you were crazy. And I guess it’s the same thing when you try to remind your younger employees and coworkers that they should wear their earplugs when they walk through a noisy area on the shop floor, and especially if they stand right next to a loud, droning machine all day. Until you’ve actually lost some of your hearing—or your eyesight, or your sense of touch or smell—there’s no way to understand what a tremendous change it will bring to your life. And also that there’s absolutely no way to get it back.

Since it’s so hard to get this point across to someone who’s young, healthy, and in full possession of their faculties, maybe the only thing to be done in the workplace is to make using hearing protection in certain jobs and areas a requirement. The first thing to do would be to write it into your safety manual, which all employees must read when they’re hired and should be asked to review periodically as well. Then post signs as a constant reminder to wear earplugs or other related gear, and not just in the loud areas, but everywhere so that the message will stand a better chance of sinking in. Also try to get over feeling like a nag for reminding workers—and those of all ages, I might add—to protect their hearing by wearing the proper gear.

Thing is, even if you do all these things, it will be for nothing if you don’t make this equipment prominently and easily available, and you also need to think about what type of protection best suits the work being done and the environment it’s being done in. Hearing protection comes in all types, from wall-mounted dispensers filled with plastic bags containing pairs of foam plugs, to the same types of plugs joined by cords to hang around the neck or plastic bands that reach over the head, to the heavy duty earmuff-style devices you often see airport workers wearing. While a big difference between these different types of protection involves their noise reduction rating, or NRR—the higher it is, the more noise it cancels out—it also has to do with the type of work being done. While these single-use, disposable earplugs can be quite effective in certain situations, you actually insert them into your ear canal with your fingers, where they expand to conform to the structure’s shape. But if you’re wearing gloves all day, or doing a job that’s extremely dirty such as changing metalworking fluids or handling greasy parts, you might not want to be sticking your filthy fingers in your ears whenever the plugs need to be lodged more securely, or removed for communication. Still, earplugs might work best if you’re wearing other protective headgear such as welding masks or hardhats—even though the good news is that nearly any type of headgear is available with attached hearing protection. My point is that it doesn’t take much time or effort to learn about the different styles that so many safety supply companies offer, and it’s easy to make them available to your workers in the handy dispensers I mentioned. The hard part will be getting someone to miss something they haven’t already lost. 

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is partner and manager of Repair Parts, Inc., and a current member and past–chairman of the American National Standards Institute B11.11 Subcommittee on Safety Requirements for Construction, Care, and Use of Gear Cutting Equipment. McDonald writes this monthly column specifically for Gear Solutions magazine, and he can be reached at (815) 968–4499 or rpi@repair–parts–inc.com. The company's Web site is [www.repair–parts–inc.com].