Are Smart Phones Smart to Use on a Work Site?

Communication is critical on construction sites. Whether for coordinating movement of materials or issuing warnings, it is important that workers be able to clearly communicate with each other.

Communication is critical on construction sites. Whether for coordinating movement of materials or issuing warnings, it is important that workers be able to clearly communicate with each other. Audio devices (e.g. radios, cell phones) can help increase speed and fidelity of communication between workers. While radios provide good voice communications between workers, there are some potential inherent problems:

  • Half-duplex – communication can go back and forth between parties, but only in one direction at a time
  • Push-to-talk – in many systems, the person must manually press a key to begin transmission
  • Wires – many systems have wires connecting the microphone to the transceiver unit

These options can slow communication and in some cases require the use of a hand that is already occupied with a task. Another problem is that wires may interfere with the worker's actions.

Unlike radios, smart phones are duplex communication devices that allow simultaneous two-way communication. When paired with a Bluetooth® device, the communication equipment can also become wireless and hands free. As a wireless connection, this removes an item (i.e., the wire) that could distract the worker, interfere with tools or equipment, or worse, snag and possibly cause an accident.

Another benefit of smart phones is that these devices may allow project managers, leads, or safety personnel to monitor the progress of operations from remote locations and interject if the need arises. It also allows cross communication between workers at different locations on the jobsite and can help alert them to operations that are occurring that they may need to be aware of. Finally, smart phones could be used as a training tool that allow apprentices or trainees to observe and hear the communications between experienced workers.

Clearly, communication is important on the construction site. However, communication devices are useless if the worker cannot hear and understand the message. Exposure to noise is one of the most pervasive occupational exposures in the construction industry.

A study by the University of Washington of 1,300 construction site noise measurements indicated that, depending on the trade, 70% of the workers were exposed to average noise levels above 85 decibels (dBA)1 – the occupational exposure limit recommended by both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienist (ACGIH). A second study indicated that construction workers wore hearing protection only 20-40% of the time when noise exposures exceeded 85 dBA2. A third study in Washington State indicated that, while construction workers made up 7% of the workforce, they accounted for 21% of hearing loss claims3.

Expanding the ability to both hear and communicate with fellow workers while protecting against dangerous levels of noise is the purpose behind communication-enhanced hearing protection.

Safety and production are two of the most important words on a construction site. Some of the preferred attributes for the communication system include:

  • Reasonable in cost
  • Small
  • Lightweight
  • Hands free
  • Have a superior range of operation
  • Be compatible with required hearing protection

These features may help operations and communications to continue simultaneously in a safe manner. Using available hardware (i.e., smart cell phones) helps to reduce capital investments in radios and reduces the items a worker may have to carry. The small size and light weight of a modern smart cell phone is a significant feature when dealing with workers who may already be carrying several pounds of equipment on their work belt.

As noted above, using Bluetooth® connection for this communication allows hands free operation of the communication devices and is a known technology not only to younger hands, but also seasoned workers. When connected to a smart cell phone, effective range can be almost unlimited. Finally, the obvious benefit of increased communications between workers may provide motivation for workers to wear hearing protection they may otherwise ignore.

When all of the above features are combined into a unit that can be added to existing hearing protection, you have a system that may:

  • Enhance communication between remote workers
  • Reduce the possibility of mishap
  • Speed production
  • Provide and motivate workers to wear hearing protection

Many construction operations that require immediate, two-way communication can benefit. One example is pile driving, where noise and distance will impede communication between operator and observer. Allowing simultaneous verbal communications and oversight between confined space entry workers, the entry attendant, entry supervisor, and safety manager is another possibility.

Again, allowing remote personnel to have a virtual presence on the jobsite may enhance operations and help increase safety. As with all devices and work sites, the contractor must evaluate the unique work conditions and determine whether the equipment can be used safely and within U.S. OSHA or other applicable safety and health regulations.

Protection, communications, and hands free can help create a safer, more productive worksite. We invite you to learn more about this smart hearing protection solution.

1. Neitzel, et al. Annals of Occup. Hyg. 55 (5) 2011
2. Neitzel, et al. Jr. Occup. and Envrion. Health 2 (4) 2005
3. Construction Industry Noise Exposures School of Public Health, University of Washington 2004
The Bluetooth® word mark and logo are registered trademarks owned by Bluetooth SIG, Inc.

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