The conditions and behaviors that result in on-the-job injuries can be addressed with worker training and better guarding and equipment. But injury-reduction initiatives don’t exist in a vacuum, as the relationship between more automation and the increasing incidence of hearing loss illustrates.
Noise levels above 90 decibels can cause irreversible hearing loss, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Office of Compensation and Working Conditions points out. The BLS office attributes rising rates of hearing loss in food manufacturing to the migration from manual processes to automation.
When BLS began tracking those injuries in 2004, the industry’s rate was 30.3 cases per 10,000 full time employees. The rate trended down for several years before steadily increasing to 22.5 cases in 2015.
Hearing loss rates are almost twice as high in food production than manufacturing overall, with some sectors particularly noisy. Workers in breakfast cereal manufacturing, for example, experience hearing loss at a 30.9 rate. Sugar production workers have a 33.2 rate, largely driven by the beet sugar segment’s 66.4 cases per 10,000 full-timers. Animal slaughter excluding poultry is even higher, at 68.2. Frozen fruit, juice and vegetable employees have a 46.1 rate.
Compared to food plants, the environment in beverage manufacturing is a library. Hearing loss cases are half that of food. Brewing arguably is the most automated segment, and hearing loss is on par with food. One of the lowest rates in either food or beverage production is found in bakeries, with 7.1 incidents.
Early industry declines in hearing loss coincided with a period when many food companies adopted policies requiring ear plugs in their plants. Current trends suggest an upgrade in this type of personal protection equipment (PPE) may be warranted, but a simpler fix might improve the overall picture: ear plug training and education.
“An inexpensive plug can work for you if it is the right shape and properly inserted,” explains Shari Franklin Smith, technical service-safety specialist, food & beverage, at 3M’s Personal Safety Division (www.3m.com), St. Paul, Minn. Fit and application, along with adequate attenuation of noise levels, dictate the effectiveness of ear protection devices.
Inexpensive plugs will do the job if they fit properly, and that is unlikely if a one-size-fits-all approach is taken when plugs are procured. The size of individuals’ ear canals varies considerably, and if the plug is too big to fit properly, its purpose is defeated.
An even bigger factor may be a lack of training. In a 3M study of a canning facility, 30 percent of workers were not inserting plugs properly. After they received instruction, the problem was resolved for most of those employees, although 11 percent required a different sized plug for adequate protection.
Training is the most powerful tool for reducing on-the-job injuries, and that’s as true for ear protection as it is for confined-space programs. Proper sizing is determined with hardware like 3M’s Ear-Fit tool, a simple device that PPE suppliers often give to manufacturers who purchase plugs in quantity.
If hearing injuries persist, it might be time for an equipment upgrade. Metal detectable plugs are the most popular choice in food plants, according to Smith. Earmuffs provide a higher level of protection. In extreme environments, muffs with communication devices built in may be the way to go.
Given the hearing trend in food plants and a better understanding of the negative impact of highly automated work environments, “we’re at a place where we might have to use something more than ear plugs,” observes Smith.
Mobile machinery is becoming the norm in automated manufacturing environments, with automatic guided vehicles and collaborative robots adding to the mix. But operator-driven lift trucks pose particular risk of human-truck collisions that is especially difficult to eliminate, she points out. High visibility garments can help lower this risk, and recent revisions in ANSI standards provide more leeway, with fluorescent orange joining safety green as color options in polyester fabrics that are breathable and comfortable.