OSHA and hearing protection
Volume 24, No. 1
PPE is something we preach to ALL emergency workers particularly in the areas of infection control; the awareness of bloodbourne pathogens, proper immunizations, and of course, the simple concept of hand washing. We are good at this, or at least we should be, and this protection is never under-stressed in training or when observing employees in the field in their daily practices. No worries there, right?? OK, but do we do everything that we are supposed to do regarding PPE? An item that is often forgotten, placed on the back-burner, or not utilized frequently enough, is adequate hearing protection.
OHSA has strong mandates for the amount of sound (in dBA) an employee may be exposed to over a given period of time. In 29 CFR, 1910.95 and the related sub-sections, OHSA outlines the decibel amounts that may be 'tolerated' over a given time period and these effects are cumulative in nature. (See Figure 1)? Now siren noise, the culprit of many complaints regarding hearing exposure for emergency workers, can easily rise above the 110 dBD level. Many of the 'old' mechanical sirens still in use today greatly exceed that by a wide margin and as many of you know nothing will move traffic like the old mechanical Federal Q2B that is still sold today ("Perhaps The Most Famous Siren Of All Times! This Traditional Siren Has Set The Standard By Which Everybody Has Tried To Match Or Duplicate", so say the ads.) Siren noise can be so deafening that even in most ads for sirens they do not give you the decibel rating for a particular unit.? After all, we are trying to be loud; we do want them to HEAR us, do we not? Yes, of course, but we must take the necessary precautions if we are going to be subjected to long term exposure to these high decibel levels.
Can we blame all hearing loss that occurs to emergency workers on siren noise? No, and there is substantial literature to support otherwise. Now sitting here wearing bi-lateral over-the-ear hearing aids aside, and yes, I am a victim of severe hearing loss, I can attest that we were not offered any hearing protection in the 'old days' and many of our rigs back then had the same mechanical sirens I spoke of earlier. Now is all of my hearing loss due to siren noise?? No, of course not, I have a conduction deficit on one side but the other side is cumulative losses and some, I am sure, is partly due to the continual pounding of Black Sabbath in the 70's and Metallica in the 80's. One of the things that are noted in the literature is music. One of the major concerns today is the use of the MP3 players (or similar devices) and the loud music that can be delivered (over long periods of time, very high dBD levels, at very close range) via a pair of small, yet powerful 'ear-plug' headphones. These "off the job" losses (or "on-the-job" if employees are permitted to use these at work) now place companies in a position to start Hearing Conservation Programs not only to protect workers but to educate them as well. Let's set aside risk management for a second and go back to Sirens and the protection of appropriate PPE.
Many of us have addressed the issue of siren noise and are wearing appropriate hearing protection (many are coupled with communication devices first utilized in the airline industry for pilot/co-pilot talk that allows discussion and communication between crew members while still providing a high degree of protection) particularly in the extinguishment arena. In EMS, well, that seems to be another story. I'm sure some of the agencies are offering up the necessary protection, but I'll tell you this, I'm not seeing much of it. It's either that the EMS workers are not being given the same protections that extin-guishment is getting or they are not wearing them. It could be a mix of both, but regardless of the reason EMS professionals must be personally responsible for their PPE. They do call it PERSONAL protective equipment, don't they? Well, it's YOUR responsibility to make sure you have it (and use it!). While the electronic sirens may not have quite the "punch" the old mechanical sirens did, continual exposure (you know, nice summer day, windows down, cruising hot to a call) can and WILL cause long term problems.
Do we have to invest in expensive communication headgear in order to also get the necessary hearing protection? The answer is an outright no, but safety professionals would agree that, optimally, the most important issue is use the appropriate device for the situation and just as importantly, the device must have a good fit and good usage by the wearer. Now this could be the $250.00+ pair of communication headsets or the cheap disposable expanding plugs that fit in the ear canal. Whatever is appropriate, it needs to fit, provide an adequate degree of protection, and it must be worn by the emergency worker ALL the time!? Not just when you feel like it or when it's convenient to do so. You risk managers are ultimately responsible for this. You are the ones who must be in compliance with the OSHA regulations and YOU are the ones who must provide (yes, that's in the regs) the necessary hearing protection for your workers. You have to provide the analysis of the workplace (this may include measuring the dBD levels), the assessment of the risk to the workers, the selection of the appropriate devices to offer the protection, the appropriate training AND motivation for their utilization and see that the workers are in compliance with the safety demands.? While we can stand here and preach about it being personal protective equipment, it is the employer's responsibility to provide the appropriate equipment. (There is much more detail in the requirements in the OSHA regulation including hearing tests and regular assessments of employee hearing so make sure you check 1910.95 for total compliance)
Now then, if the possibility exists that the sirens are too loud, should we 'lower the volume' and slow down and take a little less protection from our warning systems to protect our hearing?? One system exists to possibly help. Now we have all been sitting at a red light when the neighborhood kid pulls up in his car rigged with the 10+ Base speakers designed to shake the coffee right off your dashboard. We have all felt his music, like it or not, right? Well the latest innovation into the warning system gambit does just that. It is a siren that will also give out a low-frequency tone when coming into an intersection to penetrate objects 200 feet away. The advantage to this is it alerts drivers to the vehicles presence when they are unaware due to cell phone usage, radios too loud, or other distractions. They say the "Howler" siren can even make liquids ripple.