Volume Control: mitigating the risk of occupational noise

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Craig Storey, Noise Measurement Expert at Cirrus Research, discusses the importance of monitoring firefighters’ noise exposure

Occupational noise exposure is a hazard associated with many professions. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, sets out clearly defined exposure limits for noise that all employers must ensure their personnel do not breach. This is key to protecting people from Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) amongst other debilitating conditions, such as tinnitus, hyperacusis, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and stroke.

Firefighting is arguably one of the most hearing-critical occupations. The hearing health of firefighters concerns much more than just the conservation of hearing, however. Hearing is crucial in preventing injury in the firefighting environment. Smoke minimises visual cues, and high levels of background noise and stress-related distractions can affect the safety and ability of personnel.

Firefighters should have adequate hearing acuity to hear someone call for help; the low-pressure alarm from self-contained breathing apparatus that indicates that the device is running out of air; sounds associated with imminent building collapse; and to hear sounds associated with changes in a fire pattern.

The key to ensuring the safety of firefighting personnel is to understand what noise levels they are exposed to while carrying out their duties. Firefighters must have their hearing protected from the loud noises associated with their duties, while ensuring that any PPE provided does not obscure their hearing for the reasons referenced above. To get this balance right, it means monitoring personnel’s noise exposure in all work scenarios correctly and accurately and using the data to inform choices on the hearing protection they need. However, this is not an easy task when there is a huge variety among the many roles carried out by firefighters.

How to assess the risk of noise effectively and accurately

The most effective solution to assess firefighters’ noise exposure is to use a noise dosimeter that features octave band filters. A noise dosimeter, often called a personal noise exposure meter, is a small wearable device that fixes to a person’s shoulder. It is a compact and lightweight instrument that can be worn throughout the course of the wearer’s shift while gathering all the noise data required to comply with the Control of Noise at Work Regulations.

Octave band filters break the recorded noise levels down into their frequency bands, which when analysed using specialist software, can be used to select the most appropriate hearing protection specific to the noise levels recorded.

Contrary to what many people think about hearing protection, it is entirely possible to be either under or over-protected. Both come with their own set of risks. In the case of under-protection, the chance of a firefighter developing noise-related health conditions increases. Over-protection may inhibit their ability to hear important sounds related to the safe and effective discharge of their duties.

A noise dosimeter, such as the Advanced doseBadge5 from Cirrus Research, provides all the functionality required to effectively measure and monitor personal noise exposure for fire and safety professionals. With octave band filters as standard and the ability to measure all occupational noise parameters simultaneously, the Advanced doseBadge5 makes personal noise monitoring straightforward.

Cirrus Research supplies every noise dosimeter with its licence-free data download, analysis and reporting software, NoiseTools. NoiseTools features an extensive database of hearing protection that, based on the octave band data captured by the Advanced doseBadge5, provides a comprehensive list of the most suitable PPE based on the specific noise levels and frequency measured.

Where does the noise risk to firefighters come from?

Noise is a part of the causal mechanism leading to hearing injury and can cause hearing loss. Firefighters are exposed intermittently to high-intensity noise. However, firefighters can tend to accept noise exposure as inevitable.

When you look at the potential occurrence of exposure to high noise levels on a typical firefighter’s day, the risks can come from three main categories of activity. These are scheduled activities such as BA tests, compressor tests, and siren tests; training exercises on various pieces of equipment; and actual call-outs.

Typical noise levels from, for example, BA board tests within a fire engine’s cabin can often breach the Upper Action Level of 85 dB(A). Similarly, the routine testing of airbags, loud hailers and sounders also creates noise levels above the Upper Action Level. Measurements taken while testing field equipment, such as spreaders and cutters, also generate noise levels well above the Upper Action Level of 85 dB(A).

With the varied nature of firefighters’ daily work, knowing which equipment can pose a danger to them from a hearing perspective is essential. Effective and successful identification of the noise levels generated by specific pieces of equipment can then allow health and safety managers to take proactive measures to minimise the risk. For example, in a daily testing environment, it may be beneficial to ensure that firefighters wear hearing protection for specific tests.

How to reduce the risk of noise

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations aim to mitigate the risk of occupational noise through a hierarchy of control. In order of effectiveness, this emphasises the elimination of noise at its source; substituting the noise source for quieter equipment, for example; isolating people from noise; and changing the way people work. All of this should be considered ahead of reliance on PPE, such as hearing protection products, which the regulations consider a last resort. The reason for PPE being the least effective method of protection is that managing the correct use of hearing protection solutions is difficult.

The correct product needs to be worn in the correct manner for it to do its job effectively. Having a hearing protection product that is damaged in any way, or is not fitted correctly will greatly reduce its ability to adequately protect its wearer. When selecting suitable hearing protection products, consideration must also be given to their use in conjunction with other PPE that is being worn, such as headwear. In an ideal scenario, of course, the noise is completely eliminated from daily work.

Clearly, in the case of firefighters, some of these approaches are not practicable. The nature of their work is such that noise cannot be controlled to the same extent that it can in a more conventional environment such as a factory or warehouse. Even so, there are things that health and safety professionals can do to mitigate the noise levels that firefighters are exposed to.

One of the most effective things that health and safety professionals can do is source equipment that is proven to be quieter than existing tools. Many organisations operate Buy Quiet schemes that mandate purchasing tools and equipment that produce noise levels below a specific threshold. Appropriate training on the correct use of these tools can also ensure that noise levels are kept to a minimum.

Another effective means of controlling firefighters’ noise exposure is to ensure that nonessential personnel are kept at safe distances during noisy tests. Staff rotation is also a useful way to reduce personnel’s noise exposure. By sharing noisy activities among staff, you can ensure that no one person is exposed for longer than necessary. Knowing the noise levels from equipment and systems that personnel are exposed to can provide helpful information to generate procedures that ensure that they are not unduly exposed. Clearly, in an emergency situation, noise levels cannot always be controlled, but knowing typical noise levels in

This article was originally published in the August edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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