by Reed Stager
January 25, 2012

Reduce confusion and prevent accidents with wireless communication systems.

Clear communication is essential for creating a safe, productive and effective workplace, especially in construction environments where crew members often struggle to hear each other over excessive background noise. In these situations, a missed warning or misunderstood instruction can have serious and even fatal consequences.

Renowned safety specialist Gordon Dupont cites “lack of communication” as the No. 1 human factor error that causes accidents. If crew members do not or cannot exchange information, this sets the stage for an accident to occur.

 

Regulations

OSHA regulations require hearing protection when the time-weighted average noise exposure over an eight-hour period equals or exceeds 85 decibels (dB), and the construction environment routinely exceeds this standard. For comparison purposes, a normal conversation emits sounds of 60 to 70 dB; a dump truck emits 90 dB; a forklift emits 92 dB; a bulldozer emits 97 dB; an air gun emits 105 dB; a jackhammer emits 110 dB; and a riveter emits 115 dB.

The decibel scale ranges from 0 (near silent) to 194 (the loudest theoretically possible sound). The average human threshold of pain is typically around 110 dB—sounds above 150 dB (such as a jet engine during takeoff) will rupture the eardrum without adequate hearing protection. 

 

Traditional Methods

Traditional hearing protection methods, such as earplugs and earmuffs, may guard against hearing loss, but they make it even more difficult for crew members to communicate with each other. Radios and walkie-talkies enable direct communication but do nothing to protect hearing, and they also require a free hand to operate them. 

Other communication methods, such as hand signals, require line-of-sight visibility and can be misinterpreted. As a result, communication on construction sites is often unreliable, chaotic and unclear.

 

Wireless Communication Systems in Construction

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that approximately 30 million American workers are exposed to hazardous levels of noise on the job. Wireless communication systems offer a safe and convenient method of simultaneously protecting hearing and ensuring clear communication among construction crew members working in high-noise environments. 

Wireless communication systems have quickly become the best practice for simultaneously protecting hearing and enabling communication on construction sites. The basic building blocks of a wireless communication system include:

One or more wireless headsets with built-in hearing protection

A base station to allow communication among headsets

An optional radio-transmit interface that lets workers use their headsets to listen and talk on a mobile radio, either between different work sites or with remote users

Hearing protection devices, such as wireless headsets, can reduce noise exposure by 20 to 30 decibels. They also tend to be less expensive and more practical than other interventions. If properly designed and configured, they can be used hands-free and allow unrestricted movement on the site.

 

How to Choose a Wireless Communication System

Wireless communication systems are available in a variety of configurations. To ensure a system meets your needs, consider the following factors:

Is the system truly wireless? Some “wireless systems” still require a wire from the headset to a radio or belt pack, creating the possibility of tangled cords.

Does the system use Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) or Bluetooth? Bluetooth systems generally have a limited range and can have interference from electronic devices. DECT units offer up to 30 times more coverage and have less interference. 

What kind of range does it have? The greater the range, the more effective the system. Look for a minimum 1,500-foot line-of-sight transmission capability.

Is the system full-duplex or half-duplex? Half-duplex systems allow communication only one direction at a time, similar to a walkie-talkie. Full-duplex systems allow communication in both directions simultaneously—an important safety consideration because it allows the parties to speak and hear others at the same time. 

Is the system radio-compatible? Wireless systems should interface with mobile radios to allow communication with remote users.

Can the duplex capabilities be configured to your specific needs? To minimize the chance of cross-talk, the system should allow you to establish a hierarchy of who can talk to each other and who can broadcast over the radio.

Is the system comfortable and easy to use? Try on the headset. It should be lightweight and fit snugly, but comfortably over the ears. The controls should be readily accessible, preferably with a simple push-to-talk button or toggle-to-talk switch for accessing the radio, but it should allow hands-free communication with the crew.

What Ingress Protection (IP) Rating does the system have? The IP Rating measures the degree of protection against the intrusion of solids and liquids into an electrical unit. Look for a minimum rating of IP65.

What is the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)? This measurement (in decibels) shows how well a hearing protector reduces noise. Look for an NRR of at least 24 dB.

What kind of warranty and service does the system provide? Ask about warranty, repair and replacement policies, and try out the manufacturer’s technical support prior to making a decision. A two-year limited warranty is standard in the industry and some vendors provide extended plans up to five years.