When people see the big red engines rushing with the sirens wailing and the horns blaring, they generally look on with thanks to the guys and girls on them as they could be risking their lives in a fire on that very call. But there is also a risk to the firefighters’ hearing as they typically will enter many noisy environments which could be harmful if not monitored.
Firstly, there is attendance at fires themselves. Many people assume that the sirens on the engines are the main source of noise but, if the automatic fire alarm is still going off, the noise levels from these can be well over 100dB(A). On top of all this, there is the risk of explosion and thus high levels of impulsive noise. Add to this say uncontrolled escapes of high pressure compressed air at 110dB(A) from ruptured airlines and, potentially, you have a very ‘tasty’ noise cocktail!
Different types of noise exposure
For many firefighters though the number of fires that they attend has dropped markedly. This is because the UK has become a far safer place due to the widespread use of smoke detectors, less smoking and the use of more flame-retardant materials in furniture. So you might think that a firefighter’s exposure to noise would have dropped but think about it, where else do you see the big red engines? You may see them on the motorway attending to crashes. Should you be unlucky enough to see a multiple crash then it’s highly likely that the firefighters will be using disc cutters and saws to extricate the injured. The metal on metal noise from this equipment use is likely to be around 90dB(A).
Just as a reminder and to put it in context, it is worth noting that the Noise at Work Regulations (2005) in the UK indicates that the level at which employers must provide hearing protection and hearing protection zones is 85 decibels (daily or weekly average exposure). The level at which employers must assess the risk to workers’ health and provide them with information and training is 80 decibels. There is also an exposure limit value of 87 decibels, taking account of any reduction in exposure provided by hearing protection, above which workers must not be exposed.
But not all firefighter noise is experienced at the ‘coal face’. It is possible that higher levels of noise exposure are experienced during training. In this case, the instructor is likely to be the one who has the highest exposure as it is he or she that could be training different groups of students all day long.
There is no reason why properly designed hearing protection cannot be worn by firefighters but care needs to be taken that it is compatible with other safety equipment. As an example, will the issued helmet allow certain types of hearing protection to be worn? Indeed some helmets may actually amplify noise levels at certain frequencies!
So when you next see the big red engine tearing down the road with sirens and horns going, spare a thought not only for the risks associated with fire that its occupants might experience but also the fact that they face other risks, including that of noise, and thus they need our thanks on many fronts!
Do you have a concern about risks from noise at work or occupational noise measurement in general? Help is at hand. Visit www.pulsarinstruments.com for information or ring 01723 518011 for advice on purchasing or hiring noise monitoring equipment suitable for your needs.