By Justin Stewart

There’s an adage that says: do what you always did and get what you always got. Many people have laid claim to this quote, including Anthony Robbins and, before him, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, and even Mark Twain. Regardless, what matters is the point it makes—if you want to change the end result, you need to change the way you do things.

This idea was the inspiration for me to write this article. It made me question how many articles on noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) have been written over the years that follow the same old format: regulations, threshold limit values, measurement techniques, hearing conservation programs, and so on. These articles are important, but they may be falling on the (metaphorical) deaf ears of the senior executives who have an eye on the bottom line and might still see health and safety as a cost, not an investment.

It sounds a bit brutal, but it’s a pity that our ears don’t bleed due to chronic NIHL, which might solicit the same focus as an acute safety injury. There is also a multi-billion-dollar hearing protection industry that serves up a plethora of earmuffs and foam inserts. We know that personal protective equipment is often a kneejerk solution and is actually the least effective option in the hierarchy of controls, requiring the most management supervision to ensure that it’s fitted correctly, remains fitted correctly, is maintained properly (in the case of a circumaural protector), or indeed worn at all.

Many engineering jobs have been “exported” to emerging economies in the last 20 years or so, and the problem hasn’t gone away. If 22 million U.S. workers are still exposed to noise that may damage their hearing, despite recognition of NIHL since the 1960s, then it stands to reason that something is going wrong. Do what you always did and get what you always got.

The 6th edition of AIHA’s Noise Manual now includes the effects of ototoxic chemicals, which have the ability to cause hearing loss across a wide range of industries and occupations (regardless of noise exposure). Monitoring for noise and chemical exposure at the same time might not always be feasible, but it’s necessary in the case of a campaign being run during plant turnaround. Then you have similar fit and usage issues of PPE to contend with.

What will it take for NIHL to be taken more seriously? In the military, which continues to pay many billions in veteran compensation, it took front-page news headlines in both the U.S. and U.K. at the height of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring about a change. The U.S. Marine Corps invested over $30 million in combined hearing protection and communication devices; similarly, the British Army spent £10 million ($13 million). The British expenditures were driven by a productivity issue: so many troops had been removed from combat because of NIHL that the Army was understrength. For troops, the ability to hear commands and maintain situational awareness could mean life and death. The same is true in industry: a chronic hearing problem can lead to an accident due to a worker’s inability to hear an alarm or the sound of an oncoming vehicle. This problem can be exacerbated by traditional PPE potentially overprotecting the wearer. Correctly prescribing PPE requires some careful analysis and calculations.

Noise measurement technology has certainly come a long way in terms of functionality and ease of use. Health and safety professionals can now download comprehensive data sets and analyze them in great detail. Experimenting with “what-if” scenarios—taking out noise events and seeing the effect on exposure—can help identify potential control measures. Take noise dosimeters, for example, which are now equipped with audio capture, octave band analysis, and Bluetooth, with an accompanying mobile phone app that allows you to check the progress of a measurement without disturbing the worker. A growing range of health and safety products, including air sampling pumps and gas detection badges, can establish connectivity with other technologies. Sensor fusion and wearable technology are key to measuring multiple physical and chemical agents, which is the underlying promise of the internet of things, and there is a lot of talk about the benefits of so-called Big Data and actionable insights. According to LNS Research, the connected worker is a key pillar of the industrial transformation (we already have connected operations and connected assets; why not the connected worker?).

The market is still in an early phase of development, solutions are fragmented, and connectivity is proving to be a hard sell, not least because of ethical concerns (NIOSH published a proposed ethical framework for decision making about employee monitoring in a 2015 blog post, which is worth reading.) Customer feedback indicates it’s hard to make a business case for health and safety alone; any solution must provide productivity gains. Having a dashboard that displays employees’ exposures, location, and vital signs, backed by "Big Data" analytics, may well bring health and safety issues and their impact on productivity to the attention of senior executives.

Tech giants, small start-ups, and traditional health and safety vendors are busy developing connected products and demonstrating their capabilities. We invite you to help shape the future by providing your feedback via a short questionnaire. I am convinced that technology holds the key to much-needed relief from NIHL, the world’s most prevalent occupational disease and a wholly avoidable industrial illness.

Justin Stewart is area sales manager for Casella.

Monitoring Gets Personal, But Will Employees Wear It?