As in other process industries, the issue of hearing protection in the pulp and paper industry is made more complex by the fact that employers must not only protect their workers’ hearing, but also the purity of their product. In both Canada and the U.S., a host of regulations seek to ensure the safety of both, but in pulp and paper especially, economic concerns are also critical. Product batches are huge, as is the cost of an impurity causing spoilage, and strict requirements to eliminate contaminants — especially plastic — extend all the way upstream to the chippers who initially grind the logs.
Protecting the process
There are two basic approaches to protect pulp and paper products from hearing protectors: the first is to keep the hearing protector from falling into the product; and the second is to make it easy to detect and remove if it does.
Manufacturers of hearing-protection devices offer a wide selection of products that meet these criteria. Both single- and multiple-use earplugs are available with attached cords that can be hung about the neck. Should an earplug fall out during use, it remains attached to its mate. Should a set inadvertently fall into a vat, only one item needs to be retrieved instead of two, and that one is more easily retrieved because of the cord. Cords also offer the convenience of allowing workers to remove earplugs when not needed and leave them hanging around their necks.
Similar in concept, banded earplugs mount the earplug onto a molded plastic band, which is also worn about the neck. In addition to attaching the protector to the person, the band applies slight pressure on the earplugs to keep them well seated in the ear. One banded earplug also incorporates a patented design that prevents the ear pods from touching dirty or contaminated surfaces when they are set down.
A number of detection schemes are also available to help retrieve earplugs from process batches. One approach is to make both earplugs and attached cords highly visible by using multiple, flashy — even stylish — colours. Another is to make the earplugs, and often the cords as well, metal-detectable. This way, even if the cords are torn loose by a mixer or grinder or are cut into pieces, all components are readily detectable with X-ray scans.
For industries like pulp and paper, attached cotton fibre cords are available that will not harm process or product. These products are also packaged in paper to further minimize the risk of plastic contamination.
Hearing loss a growing problem
The point of all this remains the need to protect workers’ hearing. In spite of growing awareness of hearing loss and increased efforts to combat it, the incidence of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) among industrial workers — process and otherwise — continues to rise. Safety professionals need to look beyond traditional noise-reduction ratings in hearing protectors if they are to improve hearing-conservation efforts.
One approach is to consider the “human factors” of hearing protection, what we call the Four Cs of Caring, Comfort, Convenience and Communication. Used in combination with some technologies in hearing-protection devices (HPD) that are available, the 4Cs focus can help safety professionals make better purchasing decisions and encourage HPD use. Here’s how they work.
The Four Cs
Caring: For many workers, hearing loss is an invisible threat. They don’t realize that the impact of hazardous noise is cumulative or that even brief periods without protection can cause damage. Nor do they realize that hearing loss is permanent. There is no cure. Thus, making workers understand and care is the first step in any hearing-conservation program.
The second step is to make sure hearing-protection devices are comfortable to wear and are worn correctly. The best hearing protector is one which is worn properly when exposed to hazardous noise, and research clearly shows that Comfort is the prime driver in how diligently people will wear hearing protection.
A number of product technologies help enhance comfort and usability. One utilizes high-tech, dual-density TPE foam to create a smooth-skinned cylinder. Another development allows earplugs to change shape as they warm to body temperature and conform to the contours of the wearer’s ear canal. The longer these earplugs are worn, the more comfortable they become.
Convenience: Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. But placing HPD dispensers in convenient locations around the plant can help keep hearing protection in mind and earplugs in ears.
But the biggest “C” is the need for workers to Communicate on the job. A growing body of evidence suggests links between overprotection — the inability to hear while wearing hearing protection — and industrial accidents. In addition, workers who cannot communicate easily feel more isolated on the job and are less likely to be content and productive.
A number of HPD products are available to facilitate protected communication. The unique design of these earplugs and earmuffs helps block harmful noise while allowing voice and alarm frequencies to be heard more naturally. These allow users to target the level of attenuation to the needs of their work environment.
Ultimately, hearing protection involves human beings, and by focusing on the human element and taking advantage of developments in hearing-protector technology, noise-induced hearing loss in the workforce can be reduced.
Bill Sokol is a vice president of marketing with Masco Corporation in New York City and the former vice president of marketing for hearing protection with Sperian Protection.