More on Safety Equipment for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Employees

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Four alert lights, each a different color. Such lights could indicate steps in a process.

Four alert lights, each a different color. Such lights could indicate steps in a process.

The AccessATE and DeafTEC tip sheet on Workplace Accommodations and Safety for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Employees went over some general ideas regarding keeping deaf and hard-of-hearing (HH) workers safe on the job. Here, we will further discuss those measures, including specific equipment employers might choose.

Many people may be unaware that deaf/HH employees still require hearing protection in noisy work environments. In accordance with OSHA, MSHA, and FRA, employers must provide protection in work environments that exceed 90 A-weighted decibels, or dBA, while workers with documented hearing loss should be provided protection if noise levels exceed 85 dBA. There is a misconception that a deaf/HH person’s hearing is inherently protected by being impaired, or that hearing aids provide noise protection, but a switched-off hearing aid does not an earplug make! Remaining hearing can still be lost, and/or damage can be done or further accumulated. Hearing protection devices (HPDs), such as earmuffs, must still be provided to deaf/HH employees. Note that not all HPDs are suitable for, or compatible with, all hearing aids – the best options will vary by case, and may include devices that provide uniform attenuation, electronic sound amplification, or in-ear dosimetry.

Anything in the workplace that might be indicated by an audio cue – such as a beep, ding, or an alarm – should also be indicated with a visual cue. Many workplaces already have at least some audio-visual alerts as part of OSHA compliance – a common example is the fire alarm system, which generally consists of a loud noise and a bright, flashing light. There are many other ways to use visual cues for safety, such as laying brightly-colored tape along the floor to indicate driving areas or the safe distance around a machine. Flashing lights can indicate emergencies, mark exits, if a given piece of equipment is too hot to touch, and more. Lights with distinct placement and color can also signal things like steps in a process, such as a red light for “not in progress”, yellow for “in progress”, and green for “complete”. All signs should be clearly visible, with sufficiently large text and color contrast. Vehicles should be equipped with side and rearview mirrors, and/or utilize a guide – some circumstances require guides or spotters on the ground while another person is driving a vehicle. Your team could develop clear and distinct hand signals for various instructions, such as “stop”, “continue”, “left”, “right”, etc. Additionally, convex mirrors should be set up at intersections in order to avoid collisions. (Most of these measures will benefit non-deaf/HH employees as well!)

Finally, some workplaces may find that vibrating alarm systems are a handy option. These can be an alternative to flashing lights, but aren’t always suitable as a replacement – in most circumstances, it’s best to use vibrating systems with a visual cue. OSHA recommends vibrating watches, bracelets, pagers, or other such alarms that can be strapped or clipped to the body. Vibrating alarms can also be placed in areas occupied by deaf/HH workers, but are only a viable option if the employee is in that location consistently enough to feel it, such as an alarm clipped to the desk where the deaf/HH employee sits throughout the day. Such an alarm should indicate a single, specific event, or be accompanied by more information visually – though, additional information is better even if the former is the case.

There are many options that can be utilized to ensure the safety of deaf and hard-of-hearing employees. The majority of these measures not only benefit deaf/HH employees, but also improve safety for everyone at the workplace.

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