Can You Hear Me Now?

Advanced hearing protection tackles process-induced deafness.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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In response to the 600 cases of noise-induced hearing impairment reported by the petroleum industry every year, Norwegian researchers have developed what they describe as the world's most advanced hearing-protection device.

ConocoPhillips' Year of the Ear program in the U.K. has won kudos.

The work has taken four years and was led by Norway's largest company, Statoil, based in Stavanger. The result is an advanced version of the existing Quietpro combined hearing and communication device.

Aimed initially at offshore use, the new version of Quietpro features a microphone, on the outside of the ear plug, which picks up ambient sounds. This sound is digitally processed, and unwanted loud noises are filtered out before the sound is sent to a speaker inside the earplug. Users can adjust the level of ambient sound, as desired.

A microphone on the inside of the earplug picks up speech signals through the skull. This means that users don't have to have a microphone in front of their mouth. Another advantage is that the microphone inside the ear doesn't pick up background noise in the way that a microphone in front of the mouth does.

Quietpro was originally developed for military use by Nacre, Trondheim, which has its origins in Scandinavia's largest independent research organization, Sintef. The company's customers include the U.S. Army, which uses Quietpro devices in armored vehicles, among other applications.

"The new hearing protection device enables employees to preserve a lot of energy," explains Asle Melvær, noise specialist at Statoil, who initiated and is responsible for the Offshore Safety for Hearing and Verbal Communication (SoHot) R&D project.

"Users of the new device do not have to strain to hear what is being said over the radio, and the noise reduction system in the earplug means that the level of sound is adapted to the surrounding environment. On board an oil platform understanding messages transmitted by radio can be a matter of life and death," states Melvær.

"One important feature of the new version is a built-in noise dose meter that emits a warning signal before any damage to hearing has occurred — which is quite unique," explains Melvær. "This function will make it possible for us to withdraw personnel from hazardous noise areas before they have been exposed to noise levels that can damage their hearing."

"It is wonderful to be able to play a role in the development of new technology that will undoubtedly reduce the number of cases of hearing damage among employees in the petroleum industry. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that the development of better hearing protection must not become an excuse for failing to implement measures to reduce noise levels. This should still be given first priority," he stresses.

Starting in December, the device will be further tested at the Oseberg Field Centre near Bergen and at the Snorre oil field.

Meanwhile, Deafness Research U.K., London, the national charity for medical research into hearing impairment, has cited the ConocoPhillips' Year of the Ear program as an inspiring example of U.K. corporate social responsibility.

The company's efforts to promote awareness of the dangers of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is one of three new occupational health initiatives designed to improve conditions in the workplace.

Dr. Grant Logan, regional occupational health manager for ConocoPhillips in the U.K., headed the Year of the Ear program, which covered both onshore and offshore sites.  ConocoPhillips partnered with Deafness Research U.K., providing funding to enable the charity's Bionic Ear Show to visit all sites, as well as producing a selection of materials from which each site could tailor a specific program. The company went the extra mile to ensure its offshore staff would not miss out by sponsoring the show's presenter, Tobin May, in his offshore survival training.

"We were keen for staff to receive important health messages in a lively and memorable way," explains Logan.

During the show, May builds a 22-ft working ear and uses entertaining illustrations and audiovisual techniques to teach people how to look after their hearing. "[He] delivered 27 shows and made five separate offshore trips, visiting sites as far away as our Aberdeen office and our oil platforms in the South North Sea," adds Logan.

Vivienne Michael, chief executive of Deafness Research U.K., said, "Loud noise can unfortunately cause both hearing loss and tinnitus. NIHL is a devastating condition, yet it is 100% preventable if individuals understand why and how they should protect their hearing."

"ConocoPhillips has provided an excellent example to the industrial sector of a health program which has achieved great buy in and had a real impact on staff," she adds.



Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net.

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