The sense of safety

Online Editor

Of the five senses, enhancing hearing is the key to fewer workplace accidents, says Rick Farrell

The warning signs of a dangerous situation can trigger any one of the five senses. The smell of hydrogen sulphide or methane gas might be the first warning sign of a potentially fatal situation. An experienced worker on a construction site might detect an irregular set of vibrations through his boots and interpret these as an indication of an impending collapse. Our eyes relay all sorts of danger signals to our brains, from the readings on gauges and displays to the more direct message contained in a sudden spurt of flame. Or we may hear the increasing pitch of a valve about to burst, or the creaking of an overhead beam about to fracture.

But by far the most important sensory means of detecting danger is through our hearing. Why? Because this is how we warn one another about the dangers we’ve detected through our other senses. Anyone who’s spent more than a little time on a factory floor, in a power plant, or on a construction site has probably heard and responded to a shouted warning at least once.

Barriers to hearing clearly

Yet the irony is that our hearing is probably more subject to interference in those environments than any of our other senses. Noise levels can make it a challenge to communicate any kind of information, much less an urgent warning – and should a first warning go unheard, virtually all fatal accidents happen with little or no time for a second warning. In the UK, the two leading causes of worker deaths have been falls from a height and being struck by a moving vehicle. The elapsed time between seeing an impending potential accident and the occurrence of that accident can be measured in just a second or two. An object dropped from the top of a five-story building will hit the ground in less than 2 seconds. A forklift travelling at 18 kilometres per hour (5 metres per second) will travel 7.5 metres before the driver can react to an emergency – allowing only 1.5 seconds for any warning.

While noise is the most significant impediment to hearing others clearly, physical distance is also a factor. There are numerous situations where a person standing at some distance from another has a better perspective on a risky situation than those who are nearby. Someone standing five stories up will likely be the first to see that object about to fall; another sitting above a warehouse floor may be the only person able to see the impending intersection of a forklift’s route with a group walking in the aisles below. When noise levels make it difficult to hear a warning call from just a metre away, adding 15m of distance to the equation will make it virtually impossible.       

A solution to the problem

There’s a means by which a human voice can be placed directly in the ear of another person, eliminating ambient noise and distance as concerns: equipping all workers and any others who enter a work area with high noise communication headsets. These can fit comfortably underneath a hard hat or other safety equipment. Different models are designed for different noise levels. But in any case, a call of warning from virtually any distance, even through a sea of ambient noise, can be as clear as a comment from a person in the next chair in a meeting room. And while the focus has been on safety, these headsets are ideal for any type of communication in a noisy environment – from worker training to giving directions.   

The costs are small, the benefits huge

The cost of equipping a team with high noise communication headsets is small and affordable for almost any budget. On the other hand, the greatest potential cost of failure to hear a warning is a human life. There were 111 fatal workplace accidents in the UK in 2019-20. We don’t know how many of these may have been preventable if a high noise headset had been used, but even if the answer is “one,” it’s hard to argue with the trade-off.

Of course, most workplace accidents are non-fatal, and while their cost can’t be compared to the loss of a human life, they do exert a financial toll. There were 693,000 such injuries in the UK in 2019, according to self-reported data, resulting in 6.3 million working days lost. The total cost was estimated at £5.6 billion, including the cost to workers, businesses, and the government. That works out to a drag of £7,400 per case on the economy – far more than the cost of a headset. We won’t attempt to calculate an ROI for this investment, but suffice it to say the figure is clearly pretty large.

If only the remaining four senses could be enhanced as readily, the rate of workplace accidents might fall to levels never before seen. In the meantime, giving a boost to everyone’s hearing will result in a long stride in the right direction.

Rick Farrell is President,

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