Construction workers must hear and be heard over high levels of background noise.

Wireless Communications Boost Safety, Productivity

Is the system scalable? As your needs expand, your wireless system should be able to expand with you.

Clear communication is essential to maintaining a safe, productive, and effective workplace. Work in the industrial, manufacturing, utility, and construction industries often takes place in noisy, dangerous, highly dispersed environments. Workers must hear and be heard over high levels of background noise, regularly competing with equipment, heavy machinery, and lengthy distances between workers.

Workplace safety specialist Gordon Dupont cites poor communication as the number one cause of accidents in his famed "Dirty Dozen" list of human factor errors, which have been adopted as a model for occupational safety and health in numerous industries.

Ambient noise not only affects the clarity of communication, but also it poses a threat of noise-induced hearing loss. OSHA requires hearing protection when the time-weighted average noise level exceeds 85 decibels, a standard routinely exceeded in industrial and construction environments. Jackhammers operate at 125 decibels, well above the human pain threshold. Steel mills have ambient noise levels as high as 110 decibels. Printing presses operate at around 100 decibels. Even with limited exposure, any of these situations can lead to severe and permanent hearing loss.

In the past, workers in high-noise environments had few choices for communicating on the job and even fewer choices for hearing protection. Ear plugs and ear muffs protect hearing but may make communicating more difficult.

Communication typically takes place by shouting, hand signals, or using a radio. Each solution has drawbacks. Shouting can cause dangerous misunderstandings. Hand signals require line-of-sight visibility and free hands. Hand-held radios pick up background noise and tie up one of the operator’s hands. And none of these three options does anything to protect hearing.

New Regulations Require New Communication Methods
Not only are these methods outdated and unsafe, they also may violate government regulations. For example, new OSHA regulations further emphasize the importance of electronic and wireless communication within new crane rules for construction (29 CFR 1926, effective Nov. 8, 2010). These new rules are the most sweeping overhaul of crane safety regulations in more than 40 years and explicitly govern communication efforts among the crane operator, signal person, and spotter. Of significant importance, OSHA now requires electronic signaling to be conducted through a dedicated channel and be received through a hands-free system.

These new requirements make self-contained wireless communication headsets a better option than two-way radios for OSHA compliance because radios do not offer a dedicated channel and a completely hands-free, full-duplex operation. In the case of crane operations, wireless headsets are becoming the best practice for ensuring clear and reliable communication among the crane operator, signal person, and spotter. Whether the workplace involves complex crane operations or other scenarios of dispersed workers in high-noise and high-risk environments, everyone can significantly benefit from the improved communication provided by wireless systems. Aside for their obvious benefits for OSHA compliance, recent advancements in technology have made wireless systems a convenient, reliable, and incredibly effective method of communication. Wireless headsets reduce background noise and allow crews of nearly any size to communicate clearly, continuously, and effectively. When properly designed, wireless headsets also leave the wearer's hands free, allowing crew members to stay in continuous contact with one another, even while performing tasks on opposite sides of a work site.

Wireless headset systems are available in a wide variety of configurations and price ranges. To ensure a system meets your needs, consider the following factors carefully:

  • Is the system truly wireless? A number of so-called "wireless" systems actually require a wire from the headset to a radio or belt pack, which creates many of the same problems inherent in hardwire systems, particularly entangled cords and less transmission range.
  • Does the system use DECT technology? DECT 6.0 units operate on a licensed band at 1.9GHz, offer up to 30 times more coverage, and are less subject to interference than systems operating in other bands, such as 2.4GHz Bluetooth. DECT transmissions also have multipath capability, meaning the signal will bounce up, over, and around objects in order to establish the best possible connection. For enhanced security, DECT signals are digitally encrypted to ensure privacy in the transmission of sensitive information.
  • Is the system full-duplex or half-duplex? Full-duplex capabilities are an important safety consideration because the parties can speak and hear others at the same time, allowing verbal warnings to be delivered instantaneously. The system also should allow you to establish a hierarchy of who can talk to whom, specifically which crew members are allowed to broadcast over the radio if one is integrated to the system.
  • If needed, is the system radio-compatible? Wireless systems should have the capability of interfacing with mobile radios to allow communication with remote users. Given that there are hundreds of radio makes and models available, look for a system with maximum interface flexibility.
  • Is the system scalable? As your needs expand, your wireless system should be able to expand with you. Advanced wireless systems should be able to accommodate dozens of users.
  • Is the system comfortable to wear and easy to use? Headsets should fit snugly but comfortably over the ears. If you are purchasing hard hat-compatible headsets, try one on while actually wearing a hard hat to ensure a comfortable fit and that any external antenna does not interfere. The controls should be readily accessible to allow complete hands-free communication with the team, and optionally with a simple push-to-talk button or toggle-to-talk switch for accessing the radio.
  • What is the system's Ingress Protection Rating? A rugged wireless headset should have a minimum rating of IP65, which indicates it is completely impervious to dust and is capable of withstanding a stream of water for three minutes without damage to the interior components.
  • What is the range of the system? Look for a minimum 1,500-foot line-of-sight transmission capability, bearing in mind that system performance may deteriorate at the outer limits of the range or in the presence of structures and equipment. Test the system performance in a realistic environment before purchasing it.
  • What is the Noise Reduction Rating? Look for an NRR of at least 24.
  • What is the operational temperature range? Extreme temperatures can affect battery life and headset operation.
  • Are all components necessary for operation included in the purchase price? The price you pay should deliver a complete system that is ready for operation, including accessories such as battery chargers and charging cables.
  • What is the manufacturer's track record, and how knowledgeable are its representatives? If you purchase your system from a dealer, he or she is a critical link in ensuring the final solution meets your needs. Your dealer should be fully informed and aware of the wide variety of configuration options that allow customization to your specific application.
  • How long is the warranty? A two-year limited warranty is common in the industry, and some vendors provide extended plans of up to five years.

Wireless communication systems are a convenient, cost-effective way to keep entire work crews safe, effective, and productive, especially when they are working in high-noise, high-risk environments. When workers are able to communicate quickly and effortlessly, it allows them to have greater flexibility while improving teamwork and overall workplace operations.

About the Author

Carl Azar ([email protected]) is the director of marketing for Sonetics Corporation. The company is a leader in innovative and proven team communication systems for work teams in aviation, firefighting, military, public works, marine, construction, and industrial operations. Sonetics, together with its Firecom and Flightcom divisions, helps more than 500,000 customers in 90 countries solve their toughest communication problems. Visit or call 800-833-4558 for information.

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