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Science

Electronic ear plug to save Norwegian offshore workers' hearing

Oil giant Statoil is working on a device to not only block noise, but to also record it over time. A small pocket-sized computer records noise level constantly, which can later be used for further analysis.

QuietPro aims to protect hearing and analyze noise over time

QuietPro aims to protect hearing

Norwegian scientists are developing an electronic ear plug for offshore workers which could dramatically reduce unwanted noise while allowing vital two-way communication between users.

Typically, offshore workers are exposed to helicopters, loud turbines and other mechanical noise for long periods of time and on a daily basis. There are already strict rules governing the use of hearing protection, yet each year some 600 cases of hearing loss are reported to the Norwegian oil and gas industry.

Now Norwegian offshore workers are testing out new technology which not only can reduce noise dramatically - it can also help monitor the exact impact of long-term noise exposure on people's hearing. It's called QuietPro - a computer-driven electronic ear plug which will automatically filter out unwanted noise.

Norway's largest oil company, Statoil, is developing the technology for offshore use together with Norwegian tech company Nacre.

"The plug electronically adapts it's noise reduction according to the noise on the outside," said Asle Melvaer, a noise specialist at Statoil, who is leading its development, and expects QuietPro to be released commercially sometime next year.

"Loud noises, like a helicopter taking off, will be blocked from reaching the user's ear. The plug also works as a normal headset, so the user will hear radio messages, and a built-in microphone pics up the user's own voice from the skull."

The Norwegian oil and gas industry reports that there are 600 cases of hearing loss per year

The Norwegian oil and gas industry reports that there are 600 cases of hearing loss per year

Filters out unwanted noise

The plug itself physically limits some noise, just like normal ear plugs one might use to sleep better. Then it's wired to a pocket-size computer which within a fraction of a second analyses the outside noise picked up by the ear plug's built-in microphone. Any unwanted noise is filtered before it reaches the eardrum.

It also has an internal loudspeaker like a normal in-ear headset, allowing the user to hear radio conversation from colleagues. Finally there is an internal microphone which pics up the user's voice straight from his or her skull - eliminating background noise.

It all means communication is greatly improved, which on an oil platform could be a life saver.

But while much of that type of technology has been around for years, the company says that this is the world's first type of hearing protection that can precisely measure and record such noise levels.

"We can record this information over time, and compare the noise exposure to any future hearing loss," Melvaer added. "That allows us to say with great certainty what kind of exposure is acceptable and what is not."

The small computer constantly record what level of noise the microphone is being exposed to. That way, if someone does develop hearing problems later, company representatives or anyone else could figure out where the problems started, or what noise level is too much.

The technology has been undergoing tests at Statoil's Oseberg platform in the North Sea.

A helicopter takeoff is about 120 decibels

A helicopter takeoff is about 120 decibels

"When we are on the helicopter deck, we are exposed to a lot of sound - up to 120 decibel," said Kenneth Andersen, a Statoil helicopter deck operator, who has been using it for nearly a year.

"With QuietPro we can reduce that sound with about 30 decibel. The microphone and the loudspeaker are within the ear plug, so we can have better communication with the pilots and the radio."

Standing next to a helicopter during takeoff is about 120 decibels. Unprotected, one could suffer hearing damage after less than an hour. Take away 30 decibels and the noise is closer to that of a lawn mower. It means one can work far longer in that kind of environment without suffering any hearing damage.

QuietPro drops the noise level by about 30 decibels

QuietPro drops the noise level by about 30 decibels

Technology alone not enough

Yet technology alone cannot solve all offshore noise challenges, said Aud Nistov, who is responsible for health and safety at the Norwegian Oil Industry Association, the main trade union representing petroleum workers.

"Any technology will be welcomed within the industry, however the problem is far from solved," she said.

"The next measure would be to isolate the noisy processes from the people so that you don't have any damaging exposure. And if you don't have any possibility of isolating the people from the noise, you have to make sure that people are provided with the best available technology when it comes to hearing protection."

Others point out the success of technology like this is limited to the way it is being used.

"But it has to be easy to use, easy to understand and easy to implement on the platforms," said Hanne Hermann, the head of Norwegian Association Against Noise, a lobby group working to reduce noise in the workplace.

"Because we know from experience from other sectors that if the environment is very masculine for instance, it will be often very hard for youngsters to claim their right to use protective gear."

Author: Lars Bevanger, Oslo
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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