Upstream oil and gas operations are inherently loud environments because of the prevalence of pumps, power systems, drilling equipment, and other motorized systems. For those tasked with protecting the hearing of workers in these settings, the good news is that most of these systems are in fixed positions, allowing for design solutions to control noise levels. The bad news is that workers exposed to intense noise often are subjected to variable sound levels based on what zones they operate in, how long they are in those zones, and whether maintenance or cleaning operations are acute sources of noise.
Without measuring the noise exposure of each worker throughout the day, ensuring that everyone is protected properly is difficult. With the right equipment, training, and hearing-conservation program, however, even noisy oil and gas exploration and extraction operations need not pose a risk to workers’ hearing.
What Does Noise Control Look Like in These Operations?
The US Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) requires that employers provide reasonable protection to their workers, and that includes protection of their hearing. OSHA Standard 1910.95, specifically, lays out guidelines for occupational noise-exposure protection, which includes implementation of “feasible administrative or engineering controls” or deployment of adequately rated personal protective equipment (PPE). Employers are also required by this standard to establish “hearing conservation programs” whenever employee noise exposure equals or exceeds an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) sound level of 85 dB or a dose of 50% based on a table established in Section A of the 1910.95 standard. These programs generally are established by zone within an operating environment, depending on the levels of noise exposure taking place.
If the established 85-dB TWA is being equalled or exceeded for a worker, employers must develop and implement a noise-monitoring program overseen by a “competent person” (defined by OSHA as “someone who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them”).
Clearly, not monitoring noise at all in loud occupational environments is problematic from a health and safety perspective, but even conducting the minimum required levels of monitoring through a third party can put workers at risk. Third-party industrial hygienists may visit on a particular day, getting a snapshot of noise levels that may not necessarily account for variances that occur day after day or abnormal exposure levels from maintenance operations. A better option is to conduct an internal monitoring program that accounts for individual workers’ exposure to noise levels and offers more timely readouts that allow quicker reaction to elevated levels.
Is Internal Monitoring of Noise Levels Feasible?
While it may sound like a lot of work, operating noise-monitoring programs is not that difficult for oil and gas companies. In fact, conducting their own monitoring may make it easier to understand the data being gathered and decrease the cost of monitoring operations overall.
In-house monitoring starts with acquiring the right affordable noise dosimeter technology that monitors a worker’s exposure to sound levels throughout the day. For example, Casella’s dBadge2 personal noise dosimeters are small devices that can be clipped easily onto a worker’s shoulder, recording frequency exposure throughout the full working day. Personal monitoring units must be “intrinsically safe,” designed to ensure that monitoring in flammable atmospheres is safe. These units can be monitored through Bluetooth connectivity (using a mobile device app called Airwave, in the case of Casella units) to allow for remote noise assessment.
Besides providing convenient real-time access to noise-exposure data, remote monitoring can save companies time and money. Industrial hygienists or other monitoring personnel need not enter hazardous zones that require extensive PPE to conduct noise monitoring if it can be done from their truck. Additionally, for zones that require hot-work permits for worker access, processing of extensive paperwork may be avoided if Bluetooth-connected noise-monitoring devices allow analysis of noise levels within the hot-work zone without requiring another person to enter the zone.
Outside of dosimeters, upstream oil and gas companies will need software that captures monitoring data and allows for the creation of hearing profiles. If the right software is used, this process can be automated, ensuring that each worker has an up-to-date hearing profile that reflects the correctly rated PPE required. This sort of noise-monitoring software typically is easy to use, provides simple-to-reference documentation of hearing-conservation programs, and often creates efficiencies compared with existing noise-monitoring processes.
Finally, companies need in-house understanding of the equipment, software, and regulatory requirements that go into a noise-monitoring program. Equipment and software providers can provide on-site training for their products, as well as dedicated support to people overseeing monitoring programs. Local safety councils, the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association, or other consulting resources are great sources of advice on standards compliance. These resources can get everyone’s knowledge where it needs to be to manage a noise-monitoring program in upstream oil and gas environments.
How Should a Company Get Started?
Implementing an internally run noise-monitoring program will not mean replacing industrial hygienists, given their expertise, but it can mean discovering major efficiencies, increasing worker protection when readings are taken more regularly, guiding more-efficient decision-making. To get started putting such a program together, oil and gas companies should
If an upstream oil and gas company is not conducting noise monitoring, given the nature of the business, it is time to start. Even if an outsourced program is in place, chances are good that more could be done to protect workers’ hearing long term. A monitoring program could provide benefits not only to employees but also to a company’s bottom line and reputation.
Justin Stewart is Casella’s area business manager supporting Casella’s health, safety, and environmental boundary-monitoring solutions. He assists in the reduction of workplace and environmental health exposures through the supply of effective monitoring solutions for noise and dust. Before joining Casella, Justin was responsible for sensor application support for a global manufacturer, where he assisted in the field across a range of parameters including acoustics and vibration measurement. He is particularly experienced within the aerospace and defense industries and uses his in-depth knowledge of sensors, wireless data transmission, and industrial hygiene monitoring to support occupational assessment programs.
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