By Jean Lian
Come July 1, a new noise regulation under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) to beef up worker protection against noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) will come into effect.
The new regulation replaces and extends the noise-protection requirements set out in the regulations for Industrial
Establishments, Mines and Mining Plants and Oil and Gas — offshore under the OHSA. New workplaces covered by this regulation include construction projects, healthcare facilities, schools, farming operations, fire services, police services and amusement parks.
According to a notice issued last December by Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, NIHL is “a leading cause of occupational
disease for Ontario workers.” But Ontario is not the only province that has tightened regulations surrounding noise exposure across industries. Noise-induced hearing loss also came under the spotlight when a bulletin posted on WorkSafeBC’s website on January 25 raised alarm bells over the high incidence of the condition among workers in British Columbia’s upstream oil and gas and pipeline-construction industries.
Results from a series of hearing tests that WorkSafeBC conducted in 2014 indicate that 33 per cent of the tested workers showed signs of NIHL, compared to the 16 per cent average for workers in noisy industries. More than half of
them were 35 years old or younger, which demonstrates that hearing loss is not simply an effect of aging.
“This is a concern. The hearing-test results in oil and gas for noise-related hearing loss are more than double compared
to other industries with hazardous noise levels,” says Budd Phillips, regional prevention manager with WorkSafeBC in
Fort St. John.
The majority of the nearly 37 per cent of workers in the oil and gas drilling industry who showed signs of hearing loss
reported that they wore hearing protection. This raises the disturbing implication that the auditory protection used may not be effective, workers might be removing their protective devices or noise levels in the work environment are so high that hearing protectors do not provide sufficient protection. Young workers in the oil- or gas-field-service industry were particularly vulnerable: 17 per cent of the 35-and-under group said they did not use hearing protection, and that figure climbs to 27 per cent for the under-21 group.
The Occupational Health and Safety Regulation says employers are required to provide hearing-loss prevention programs, monitor noise levels and conduct annual hearing tests for employees who are exposed to hazardous noise. WorkSafeBC’s data indicate that only 15 per cent of workers in oil and gas and pipeline construction were tested in 2014.
“This is a call to action for employers in hazardous-noise industries to ensure their workers have access to hearing-loss
prevention programs and annual testing, as well as vigilant monitoring to determine where and when the highest levels
of noise exposure are occurring and take appropriate engineering control measures to reduce exposures,” Phillips says.
So why do oil and gas workers in British Columbia have a high incidence of NIHL? “People in oil and gas work for
much longer periods,” says Ponnachan Joseph, a registered occupational hygienist with Industrial Safety International
Inc. in Calgary. Twelve-hour shifts are normal, and workers often work 10 straight days due to remote worksites.
The lack of visibility of NIHL is another factor. “You don’t see blood coming from the ears or anything like that,” Joseph says.
Although hearing protectors are almost always available on a worksite, “they don’t give that much priority to hearing
protection, because it is not an acute issue,” unlike immediate threats like hydrogen sulphide or falling objects. “The issue of hearing loss is certainly serious, but I think there is a general lack of awareness on the severity of the occupational illness,” suggests David Jarrell, managing director of Consolidare Consulting International in Calgary. As hearing loss happens over time and results from chronic exposure, “it is not perceived as being that high-risk.”
In a presentation on reducing hearing loss in the oilfield, San Diego-based Brad Witt, director of hearing conservation with Howard Leight by Honeywell Industrial Safety, points out that NIHL is particularly insidious, because it occurs
without pain, visible signs of trauma or physical abnormalities. Hearing loss is hard to detect in the early stages, and
there are wide individual variations of susceptibility to NIHL.
On the behavioural front, workers operating in an environment where high hazards abound are also more likely to remove hearing-protection devices to aid communication. “Many workers will avoid using earplugs or earmuffs with
the mistaken belief that it prevents them from hearing more life-threatening hazards,” Witt says.
According to Dan Clarke, president of Clarke Consultants in Edmonton, the industry has historically relied on the use
of personal protective equipment (PPE) rather than on engineering c ontrols to reduce noise exposure. “The result has
been some the nosiest work environments that I have ever surveyed. It is fairly common to see noise levels exceed 110
dBA on some equipment.”
At these levels, a worker needs to wear both well-fitted earplugs and earmuffs to get adequate protection. But many
find wearing one or the other uncomfortable, and getting them to wear both at the same time can be a challenge.
“It is rare to find any areas outside of the dog house on a drilling rig that are under 85 dBA. Workers in these environments need to wear hearing protection 100 per cent of the time when they work, and they don’t like to do that,” Clarke says. A dog house is a small enclosure on the rig floor used as an office for the driller or as a storehouse for small objects.
Relying almost entirely on PPE requires workers to be educated in depth and demands a high degree of compliance
monitoring by supervisors. While hearing protectors generally do well in laboratory tests, in the real world, “workers often do not know how to insert the plug correctly or would prefer to wear them in a more comfortable fashion — that is, on a string around their neck,” Clarke notes.
Jarrell says there is a good reason why PPE is often considered the last line of defence. “All PPE has limitations, and I believe the work conditions exceed the capability of the earplugs and muffs to adequately protect.”
Diesel engines are the primary source of noise in the oil and gas sector, according to Art Jarvis, executive director of Energy Services BC in Fort St. John. Sound pressure level is measured in decibels, while the frequency of engine rotations is expressed in revolutions per minute (rpm). Engine noise at different RPM produces a different decibel count.
There is also the high-pitched noise of “steel on steel”, such as rotating dozer tracks, the hammering of pile drivers and
the droning sounds of flow through piping in a plant situation. “All these produce many different tones, pitches and
decibel levels,” Jarvis adds.
POISON TO THE EARS
In addition to the high levels of noise, oil and gas workers are also at risk of ototoxic chemical exposure, or ear poisoning. Environmental chemicals that are ototoxic include mercury, carbon disulfide, toluene, styrene, xylene, hexane and trichloroethylene.
For instance, mercury is a natural component of oil and gas and may be present in high concentrations in some formations. Job tasks that carry an exposure risk to mercury in gas-processing facilities include vessel cleaning, welding, grinding, polishing, pipefitting and hydro-excavating.
Implementing engineering controls is complicated by the temporary nature of work locations typical in the industry,
Joseph says. The sheer variability of job tasks undertaken in the sector and the use of mobile equipment in many upstream operations in outdoor environments also make it difficult to control work conditions.
Facilities are easier to apply engineering controls. Mobile equipment and tools typically get overlooked, and that is
what I think contributes to excessive noise,” Jarrell suggests. And it always boils down to cost. “It is easier and more convenient to fall back on the use of hearing protection.”
Clarke stresses the importance of finding out which areas of their rigs contribute most to noise exposure and to engineer that out as far as possible. “A three-dB reduction is a 50 per cent reduction in noise energy and risk to worker hearing,” he says. Selecting the appropriate muffler for a rig engine will often result in a five- to 10-dBA reduction in noise levels near this equipment. “If companies implement a fully compliant hearing-conservation program, I think we would see a dramatic reduction in the number of noise-induced hearing-loss cases.”
The occupational exposure limit for noise in the oil and gas sector is the same across industries. According to Clarke,
most Canadian provinces, with the exception of Quebec and federally-regulated employers, have adopted the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygiene exposure limits, which stipulate that the daily energy averaged sound level (Lex) does not exceed 85 dBA.
Regulatory requirements state that employers must do baseline noise measurements any time when Lex levels exceed 85 dBA and after any changes in equipment or processes. In practice, this means that all operating drilling rigs will require some level of noise monitoring.
“Many rig operators have done some baseline monitoring, but probably not to the extent required by regulations. Most
have done some spot-noise measurements, but many have not done the personal dosimetry required or done retesting
after changing equipment and processes,” Clarke says.
Once it has been established that workers are exposed to Lex levels greater than 85 dBA, which is likely in the case for
rigs, provincial regulations require employers to establish hearing-conservation programs. “While a number of employers have done this work, many are unaware of the regulatory requirements. As a result, many workers don’t get much training on the hazards of noise exposure and the proper use of personal hearing protectors,” Clarke adds.
Jarrell points to inadequate hazard assessment. “People may recognize there is noise present, but they couldn’t quantify it. They might not be aware of thresholds where additionalprotections are required.”
For Joseph, education is key. As health issues are rarely addressed in safety-program audits, he recommends incorporating oh&s issues into program management and certifications like the Certificate of Recognition. Other measures include training safety coordinators on basic workplacehealth issues and ensuring that independent contractors conduct hearing tests.
“WorkSafeBC has a wealth of knowledge on occupational illnesses,” Joseph says. “[They] should be able to bring in
some experts and provide training in remote locations. That might help.”
Jean Lian is editor of ohs Canada.