How to Prevent Safety Alarm Fatigue
Sonetics | November 17, 2016

As a heavy equipment operator, one of the challenges you face regularly is noise. You’re bombarded with it, and the equipment you operate is only one of many sources. Other worksite noise, emergency sirens, radios, and cell phone rings or buzzes all contribute to your loud work environment. One study found that heavy equipment operators’ average daily noise exposure ranges from 84 to 99 A-weighted decibels (dBA). OSHA requires a hearing conservation program when exposure exceeds 85 dBA.

In an environment where multiple sounds compete for your attention, it can be difficult to decipher which alarms take priority.

Fading Into the Background

Too many alarms can eventually overwhelm you and become such a nuisance that you inadvertently ignore danger. Such was the case in a Washington subway crash, the Deepwater Horizon disaster and a Korean Air jumbo jet crash.

Here are some reasons why alarms become background noise. You’ve likely experienced several, if not all of them:

  • Alarm fatigue.This phenomenon occurs when “one is exposed to a large number of frequent alarms and consequently becomes desensitized to them.”
  • Listener fatigue. As a heavy equipment operator surrounded by noise, you have more than likely suffered the physiological impacts of prolonged exposure. While symptoms include loss of hearing sensitivity, they also take their toll on the rest of your body in the form of exhaustion, discomfort and pain.
  • New employees or worksite visitors may not understand the alarms emanating from your machine. They may not realize that they’re about to be backed over until it’s to late.
  • Equipment failure.Not the equipment sounding the alarm, but the equipment that helps you hear the alarm. For example, if you lose sight of your spotter and have to rely on a two-way radio, channel lockout or button mashing can block a warning from ever reaching you. Also, wearing traditional hearing protection can block your ability to hear an alarm, which is why some operators gamble on possible hearing damage as the lesser of two evils.
  • In the zone.Operating your machine requires complete concentration. That’s fine as long as other safety measures or spotters are in place to help keep you safe. But if you compromise your situational awareness without planning ahead, you expose yourself by focusing so intently that you don’t hear – or can’t react to – the alarms around you.

Re-emphasizing Warning Signals

We compiled a warning signal checklist* to help you stay alert to alarms.

  1. Customize the different alarms that may sound off in your cab. Use different sounding alarms for backup than you have for other proximity sensors. Set alarm volumes according to severity of the alert; if every safety signal is a klaxon alarm capable of evacuating a small town in the event of an airstrike, then alarm fatigue will set in fast.
  2. Make sure alerts include a visual notification on your dashboard as well as auditory.
  3. Train and inform employees, contractors and visitors on what different alarms mean on your machine and how they need to react if they hear them.
  4. When you use hearing protection make sure you can still hear alarms. If that’s not possible, then devise other strategies involving visual cues, physical warnings and spotters to avoid incidents.
  5. Don’t allow anyone to disable or circumvent alarms, and take disciplinary action when it happens. If you don’t own your machine and suspect that an alarm has been tampered with, then it’s in your best interest to request that it be repaired. If an incident were to occur, you don’t want to be held liable for being complacent.
  6. Increase situational awareness. Instead of using hearing protection that blocks out all noise, use a hearing protection system that muffles only the dangerous noise, allows you to control how much background noise you need to hear to enhance your safety, and also acts as a wireless team communication system so you can talk hands-free to spotters, supervisors and other workers without taking any attention away from the machine you’re operating.

How Sonetics Technology Can Help

To prevent safety signals from fading into the background you need to do two things. Block out the noise that isn’t important; and emphasize the noise that is important. Sonetics wireless team communication systems include technology to help you do both.

  • Sonetics headsets feature an EPA noise reduction rating of 20 dB
  • Stereo listen-through technology provides a programmable volume level that limits all sounds to 82 dB.
  • Microphones on the forward edge of the headset allow operators to decipher where sounds come from, increasing situational awareness.
  • DECT7 Wireless communication lets you hear and be heard at all times; spotters, fellow operators and other workers who are wirelessly connected to the system prevent you from getting isolated in your cab.
  • Bluetooth integration allows you to listen to or communicate with cell phones, mp3 players, mobile radios and computers.

After you gain control of what noises get relegated to the background, you begin to appreciate the ability to hear alarms again. Your ears, nerves and safety officers will thank you for it.


*This checklist is based on a version that originally appeared in the OSHA article, “The Sounds of Safety,” by Linda Sherrard.