Striking a Balance

By Phil La Duke

I presented at a corporate safety day on Friday and in the course of the activities I found myself in conversation with an expert in hearing protection.  The conversation turned to the people who where hearing protection while mowing their lawns.  I asked him point blank what he thought and his answer surprised me.  He told me that for some people they are actually putting themselves at risk by doing so.  He explained that it took about 3 hours of mowing to do damage one’s ears and that while it is important for people who do landscaping for a living to wear hearing protection encouraging workers to wear it at home might be putting them at risk.

What possible harm could come from wearing hearing protection? The loss of situational awareness, in other words, people won’t hear dangers.  When it comes to hazards one protection does not fit all, it seems. How serious is the loss of situational awareness? Well that depends on the situation.  If the environment is relatively compacted (like many older neighborhoods) and had a substantial number of hazards than the risks posed by the loss of situational awareness can be significant.  But, if one is spending three hours or more cutting several acres of grass the loss of situational awareness is far less a threat than the exposure risks posed by the loud noise from the lawn mower.

Many consumers (as opposed to professional landscapers) would gain more, simply by maintaining their equipment.  Most loud landscaping equipment has mufflers that are installed to reduce the noise to safer levels and yet consumers seldom think of preventative maintenance on this equipment.

The conversation made me think about a similar conversation I had with a client. Plant leadership were debating whether to allow tinted safety glasses and if so, to what extent should the plant allow the glasses to be tinted. On one hand, supervisors were documenting insufficient lighting as a hazard, but on the other hand workers were requesting tinted safety glasses. In the end, the plant leadership agreed that there was no reason to allow the workers to wear sunglasses indoors and that doing so did pose some risk.  The decision wasn’t popular among the handful of workers who really wanted to wear sunglasses, but the greater good was served.  In this case, safety professionals were asked to advise plant leadership on the balance between worker satisfaction and lowering the risk of injury from wearing sunglasses indoors.

Worker satisfaction with protective equipment is no small matter.  The U.S. Army found that it was able to significantly reduce the number of eye trauma injuries by changing from the unpopular and unattractive safety glasses to the cooler and more popular glasses worn by pilots.  Compliance has a lot to do with the workers wanting to comply as anything else.

As safety professionals, we are called to strike a balance daily. We have to balance the cost to correct a hazard against the risk it poses (we might be better off containing it long term than correcting it.) When we get too firmly entrenched in one methodology or philosophy we lose the flexibility necessary to make these often tough decisions. In fact, we often can’t even see that a trade off  needs to be made if we can only see the world from one lens.

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#exposure-risks, #hearing-protection, #risk-assessment, #worker-safety