Communicating in extreme environments

3M Safety & Graphics

Monday, 15 October, 2012

Communicating in extreme environments

Many modern workplaces involve exposing the workforce to hazards such as noise, noxious gases, dusts, fumes, etc.

There are numerous ways to reduce these exposures (elimination, substitution, engineering solutions, etc) but in some cases the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is required because of the specific conditions. This means workers can be required to wear PPE like hearing protection, respirators, coveralls, gloves, goggles or visors and helmets.

While this equipment is necessary for worker safety, it can create secondary hazards, including issues with field of vision, manual dexterity and discomfort.

One significant workplace necessity that can be affected by PPE is clear communication. In areas with high noise exposures, the correct use of earplugs or earmuffs reduces exposure and protects workers’ hearing. However, their ability to communicate with fellow workers can also be reduced and this can lead to other problems.

The same issue can occur with workers wearing a respirator. The mask will muffle the wearer’s voice making clear communication more difficult.

With advances in electronics and miniaturisation of components, there are now product solutions to deal with these issues, like battery-powered electronic earplugs. These earplugs connect the worker via a push-to-talk module to a two-way radio and allow the wearer to talk to others on the network.

The microphone and speakers are both contained in the earplugs with the sound being transferred directly from the skull to the miniature microphones and directly into the ear via the speakers. This pathway reduces vocal distortion caused by the facemask. The volume can be adjusted and there is no boom microphone to get in the way of a visor or mask. The earplugs also give a rated level of protection (AS/NZS 1270) to protect the ears from the ambient noise.

These specialised earplugs, like 3M’s Peltor OraTac In-Ear System, can also provide an ambient awareness function. This means they allow the wearer to adjust the volume to hear the ambient noise as needed (eg, alarms, vehicles, announcements), but when the noise reaches a certain level, the attenuation of the earplugs will cut in and protect against these higher noise levels.

This type of product can be used with full- or half-face respirators, hoods, helmets and visor systems, and promotes clear and effective communication between workers that improves safety and worker efficiency.

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