Can you hear me now?

June 7, 2010
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Who doesn’t identify with this question when using two-way radios or cell phones in high noise? The question is so popular that one of the nation’s largest cell phone companies has used it to their advantage in marketing efforts. The answer may be yes, I can hear you, but I can’t understand you!

Radios and cell phones can be found in multiple industrial operations the world over — companies are determined to improve worker safety and productivity with the use of communication systems. But countless operations suffer from inadequate communications because their high-noise environments simply overrun the radio or cell phone’s ability to transmit clearly through the noise. This is not news to the end user in high-noise environments, but it should be on the radar screen for anyone who is tasked with supplying the appropriate communication system to their operations.

Choices, choices
The first step is to figure out which communication vehicle is most appropriate for your operations. Cell phones are everywhere now — even our kids have cell phones to keep in touch with their parents — but are they really appropriate for most industrial applications? The answer is generally no, unless they are used in relatively low-noise environments.

If cell phones are not adequate for your operations, then the two-way radio is the most logical choice. It can be more reliable in remote locations and is compatible with a wide array of accessories designed for use in high noise and with respirators.

If you are dealing with high noise, then you are certainly facing hearing protection requirements. Most workers who use radios in high noise will complain that they simply cannot hear the radio through their hearing protection, or they can’t understand the person who is transmitting over the radio. The result of this very common problem is that workers remove their hearing protection to hear the radio or they simply fail to effectively insert their hearing protection to avoid this situation. Both of these actions can lead to hearing impairment.

Radio headsets are a commonly used hearing protection and communication accessory for two-way radios. These are not to be confused with the headset used for cell phones; two-way radio headsets include a boom microphone plus ear muff-style speakers. They are effective up to moderate noise levels but can be hot and uncomfortable for the user.

An alternative to headsets for hearing protection and two-way communications is in-the-ear microphone systems. These devices transmit the voice from the user’s ear canal, which is occluded by the hearing protector, eliminating background noise from the transmission. These are also very practical for use with respirators because the voice is not transmitted from the mouth, and there is no headgear involved.

Respirators pose significant problems when using radios unless the right accessory is utilized. It is not uncommon to see workers actually removing their face masks to speak into their radios, ultimately defeating the purpose of respiratory protection. Some common accessories to aid in respirator communication include voice amplifiers (near field only), throat microphones and in-the-ear microphones. When selecting a device to resolve communications when using a respirator, it is imperative that you evaluate compatibility with your radio, invest in intrinsically safe electronics if applicable, and look for the ability for multiple users to access the system.

Purchase and maintenance
Investing in communication systems can be a formidable task for the company that has never used communication devices in the workplace. Management soon realizes that good radios are not cheap, and their accessories shouldn’t be cheap either. Quality products should come with a good warranty (at least one year) and support from the vendor for repairs, etc. Purchasing this type of equipment online is an option. You will generally find lower costs, but be prepared to experience little to zero customer service from these vendors. There are companies out there that specialize in all things radio, so do your research and select a reliable vendor that has good products, not just a great price.

It is also important to keep in mind that radios and their accessories will need to be maintained, just like any other piece of equipment used in industrial settings. Some workers have a hard time keeping a crow bar straight, so they will definitely put these communication devices to the ultimate test. Personalized accessories like custom ear pieces are excellent tools to help create ownership of these devices. If workers are to share radios and accessories, durability is a significant factor when considering which device(s) to purchase.

Despite the perceived nuances associated with owning and maintaining communication systems, it’s conventional wisdom that a communication system is mandatory to keep workers safe and productive in most industrial environments. Technology is improving the functionality of these devices and making them more comfortable to use for a full work shift. Matching your needs with a system that your workforce will embrace is the ultimate challenge, but the solution does exist if you’re willing to source the right product.

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