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Noise: A silent disaster

Pumps, compressors and turbines are noisy beasts, and some 350 occupational hearing injuries are reported to the PSA every year. If this fi gure is to be reduced, the industry must do more to quieten things down – and give less weight to ear protectors.

Machinists, mechanics, process operators and surface treatment personnel are among the groups indirectly exposed to high sound levels or who use noisy equipment themselves. Space exists on land to insulate noise sources or to move work away from them. But this is not possible offshore, which makes the challenges greater.

Large groups of NCS workers suffer daily exposure to excessive noise, with many subject to more than 90 decibels over a12-hour shift.

The ear experiences 120 decibels as painful, and roughly 100 are the normal level in a disco. A ceiling of 83 is set by the regulations.

So the risk of noise-related hearing damage in the petroleum industry is not negligible. In many cases, ear protectors alone provide a weak barrier between cause and effect. “Indicators for noise in our trends in risk level in the petroleum activity (RNNP) survey indicate that improvement is slow,” says discipline leader Sigvart Zachariassen at the PSA.

“The number of reported cases of hearing damage shows no sign of decreasing. And roughly 35 per cent of respondents to the RNNP questionnaire say they find noise at work a problem.”

The regulations build on the principle of restricting actual exposure to sound, Mr Zachariassen notes. “This means that ear protectors should only be used as a last resort. “Persistently frequent reports of hearing damage are a sign that such devices are not an effective barrier, and we note that noise-induced harm remains at a high level.

“This means that the industry must work much more aggressively to eliminate the actual noise sources – and rely much less on protective gear.”

While surface treatment operators are particularly vulnerable, a number of occupations are exposed to sound levels above the regulatory limit and depend on ear protectors to prevent damage.

The PSA’s experience through contact with the industry, casework and audits indicate a big potential for noise reduction measures in the petroleum sector.

Such cuts could involve both technical measures and steps to shield workers from the actual sound source – through remote operation, for instance.

“We know that dealing with noise sources can be expensive,” agrees Mr Zachariassen. “That makes it all the more important to take account of such exposure in new developments and when modifying existing installations and equipment.” Adding that a lot can be achieved through good planning and risk management, he appeals for a united drive against noise and hearing damage.

The PSA conducted audits at a number of operators and contractors during 2008 with a common focus on occupations particularly exposed to risk.

“Data acquired from this work showed that 50 of the 100 mechanics on one offshore field had hearing damage,” reports Mr Zachariassen. “That’s a significant sign of how high the incidence can be.”

Speaking rhetorically, he asks whether the industry can live with causing permanent hearing damage to several hundred of its workers every year.

“For our part, we’ll be giving a high priority in future audits to noise and to the action planned and taken by the companies to reduce exposure.”

In his view, the industry must devote more energy to overcoming these challenges and to implementing measures which noticeably reduce the risk.

“Noise must be put on the agenda. We have specific ambitions for achieving positive change, and we believe success will be possible.

“Good results have been achieved in the industry on many previous occasions when the authorities, the employers and the unions collaborate to reach targets.” Mr Zachariassen reports that the petroleum sector is now working to develop and implement methods and tools which can cut noise exposure and boost awareness of the risk to hearing.

“But a substantial change in attitudes is needed,” he emphasises. “And decision-makers must display greater willingness to be aggressive on measures which make a difference.”

By Kristin Hoffmann