Federal agencies team up to protect power plant workers’ ears from dam noise

ARLINGTON, VA–Three federal agencies have joined forces to turn down the noise generated by the nation’s dams and hydroelectric power plants. For this purpose, the Office of Naval Research, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans this week to use technology originally designed to protect U.S. Navy and Marine personnel from noise-induced hearing loss.

The goal of the project is to protect the hearing of employees at the 476 dams and 58 hydroelectric power plants that the Bureau of Reclamation operates across 17 Western states.

 

NOISY BUT VALUABLE

James Meredith, manager of safety and occupational health for the Bureau of Reclamation, noted that roar of the water at the bureau’s power plants threatens the hearing of approximately 5300 employees across the country.

Although they are provided with personal hearing protection, workers in the lower elevations of the power plants, closest to the water, are exposed to noise levels up to 115-120 dB. It’s no wonder, Meredith noted, that from $1.5-$2.0 million a year, about 20% to 25% of the bureau’s worker compensation costs, go for treating hearing loss.

Federal hydroelectric facilities provide a significant amount of energy. Collectively, they produce 40 billion kilowatts, enough to satisfy the power needs of 9 million people a year. Providing the same amount of energy with fossil fuels would require burning 6.8 billion tons of coal or 23.5 million barrels of oil.

Under the interagency agreement, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) will lend its extensive expertise in noise-induced hearing loss to help identify noise sources and propose engineering controls at dams and hydroelectric plants nationwide as part.

“The Navy in general, and ONR in particular, is leading the curve when it comes to understanding the dangers of noise,” said Kurt Yankaskas, a program manager in the office’s Warfighter Performance Department. “It’s a serious problem not only in the Navy and Marine Corps, but across modern society.”

Yankaskas added, “Within ONR, we’re addressing noise-induced hearing loss from all perspectives—engineering, audiology, acquisition programs, medical research, and more,” Yankaskas says. “The American public is starting to learn how pervasive our noise exposures are.”

 

STARTING IN MAY

Six sites will undergo an initial round of noise surveys this spring, with additional surveys slated later this year for plants operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Its infrastructure includes power-generating units and plants that provide 25% of the nation’s hydropower capacity.

The Corps of Engineers also operates other facilities where noise can rise to dangerous levels. For example, at its John Day Lock and Dam on the Columbia River, more than 2.5 million gallons of water crash down every second. Safety controls, such as covering turbine generators, limit employees’ exposure. However, said Andrea Pouliot, the Corps’ industrial hygiene program manager, “We still do have hearing loss cases, and we are excited and interested in trying to figure out how to control the noise so that we’re able to prevent them.”

Field measurements, including acoustic octave band and vibration analyses, will be taken at selected facilities in the Pacific Northwest and Colorado regions through May 2012. Following data evaluation this summer, ONR will propose areas for noise improvement through a range of engineering and technology controls.

This new hearing-protection project scope will require $14,000 in additional federal funding, bringing the total to $109,000, to evaluate and seek new controls for protecting plant workers from hearing damage sustained on the job.