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School Engagement – Noise risks

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Health and safety was a key part of educational engagement programmes on the High Speed Two (HS2) Enabling Works Contract central section. One effective initiative was a focus on noise safety and hearing health awareness within the school engagement offering. This included: joining forces with a hearing conservation charity; running a workshop for 180 students in Warwickshire on the impact of noise, and how hearing damage and loss can be prevented; to educating and challenging students to design posters on the dangers of construction sites. It also played a key part in the work experience programme. This proved a powerful and effective safety message to communicate.

This paper sets out the format of the workshops and activities undertaken that may be useful to other projects planning their schools engagement programmes.

Background and industry content

Tiny hair cells in our inner ear allow us to hear, distinguish sounds like music and speech and communicate with the world around us. But these are very delicate and once damaged or destroyed by noise they are not replaced. That means once our hair cells are gone the hearing is lost forever. The combination of noise exposure through our jobs, hobbies and listening habits all add irreversible damage to our hearing function.

Some 17,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, ringing in their ears (tinnitus) or other health conditions caused by exposure to excessive noise at work[1]. Construction sites are particularly noisy places to work. We know that regular 8-hour exposure to 85 dBA can damage hearing and many construction activities easily exceed these levels. For example, using a jackhammer for just 1 hour per day, will take you above the legal limit to protect your hearing. In fact, much of the equipment used by construction workers will regularly create noise levels above 85 dBA [2]:

  • Jackhammer: 100 dBA
  • Chop saw: 105 dBA
  • Chain saw: 110 dBA
  • Hammer drill: 115 dBA

In terms of social noise exposure people now spend many hours using headphones or earbuds to listen to music or spoken content like podcasts or even for work purposes on zoom or Teams calls. As headphone listening habits can start from a young age and can be for many hours even listening at moderate levels can damage hearing over time, because the length of exposure is a factor alongside volume. Continued exposure to noise from all these sources in our lives leads to permanent harm for which there is currently no medical treatment or corrective surgery available to restore lost hearing. It is therefore important to educate people from an early age about the dangers of exposure to loud noise, creating healthy listening habits and to educate young people on how to protect their hearing for the future.

Approach

Fusion (a joint venture of Morgan Sindall, BAM Nuttall, Ferrovial Agroman) are the Enabling Works Contract (EWC) on the central section of High Speed Two (HS2) Phase One.

Fusion was approached by a hearing loss charity, the UK Hearing Conservation Association (UKHCA), who wanted to collaborate with schools to raise awareness of the impact of noise and listening habits on hearing. Fusion recognised the value in supporting this and took the opportunity to share this important message within schools. In line with HS2 requirements, this project gave them the chance to engage with local schools, raise awareness of careers within the construction industry, and protect the hearing of the next generation. They also felt that this project supported some of Fusions’ key values; safety, collaboration and innovation.

In collaboration with a local secondary school, who had approached us to develop a careers workshop for their year 9 students (13/14 year olds), and the UKHCA, Fusion designed a workshop for the 90 students in the year-group.

A team delivered a workshop to 180 secondary school students, educating them on hearing loss and how they can protect their hearing. The workshop was led by an expert and contained four different activities through which the students rotated round over the course of two hours.

Students learnt about the harmful levels of noise that they can be exposed to through using everyday items, such as a hoover or headphones, as well as the noise they may encounter in and around a construction site, and the measures that can be put in place to protect hearing and mitigate any effects of noise.

Fusion introduced the project and the benefits to the community.

Fusion H&S apprentices provided a general introduction to health and safety, as they felt it was important to utilise younger colleagues that the students could relate to.

This was then followed by a presentation by the Director of UK Hearing Conservation Association explaining how the ear works, what dangerous levels of noise are and the consequences of poor listening habits and loud levels of noise exposure. This was accompanied by visual demonstrations including videos and a programme that showed the level of noise when students clapped.

The students were split into three groups of around 30, and we ran four separate activities. Within each group, the students were split down into smaller groups. The four activities were as follows:

  • Activity one – Play your cards right. Students were given nine pictures of “noisy things”; and had to order the cards with which item produced the highest number of decibels. These were things like a vacuum cleaner, a drill and a crying baby, including every day and construction examples.
  • Activity two – Stop the noise. Students were given a speaker and a range of materials such as polystyrene, stands and boxes, and a sound meter. They were tasked with trying different solutions using the materials given, to see what would reduce the level of the noise.
  • Activity three – What it’s like to have a hearing impairment. In a game similar to Chinese Whispers, the students wore a pair of headphones which reduced their hearing, while trying to repeat back what another student was saying to them.
  • Activity four – Eddie the hearing dummy. Hearing dummies have the same acoustic properties as an average human, and allow the user to test audio equipment, such as headphones and measure the sounds. This activity involved the students placing their headphones on “Eddie”- the hearing dummy and were asked to play music at their normal volume, to understand the sound levels, and showing them how long they can listen safely for. This brought some surprises for the students and an increased awareness of the damage they were causing!

The session concluded with talks about what noise means in construction: the numbers affected, the scale of the problem, and then the best ways to enjoy sound safely. Students were also given a pair of ear plugs to take away with them.

Around half a dozen Fusion colleagues attended, covering various disciplines and roles within the organisation and providing different perspectives on noise hazards. Among them was the Occupational Health Lead, who was able to bring to life the impacts that can happen to people if noise is not managed properly.

The workshop served several purposes: from a construction perspective it introduced some of the careers available; but more importantly it helped raise awareness with the students on the importance of protecting their hearing in their normal day-to-day lives.

Lessons learned and successes

The overall feedback from the event was excellent. Feedback from students included: “‘Loved it, very knowledgeable”; “loved the headphone listening challenge”; and “time went quick, very interesting and informative”. A teacher said it was the best enterprise event he had been to at the school. In particular, the pupils were engaged and very positive about the group challenge element, where they had to develop their own sound-proofing solutions (activity 2 above).

A lesson learned was that 90 students, even when split into groups, was a large number to manage. While the day was still very effective, running the event over two separate days would have provided smaller group sizes and enabled more direct interaction and engagement with the pupils.

Fusion’s intention was to repeat the event at other schools due to its success. However, due to Covid-19 and the ensuing government restrictions and school closures, the workshops have been put on hold.

Recommendations

School engagement sessions that have a broader theme than just engineering/construction are very well received. Topics like noise and hearing loss are directly relevant to the lives of all the pupils and therefore get good participation and interest, while still allowing aspects of construction (and/or HS2) messaging to be fed in as part of the overall day. It is therefore recommended that future projects considering school engagements should:

  • run School Engagement Sessions based on these kinds of broader and relatable themes.
  • use the specific topic of Noise Risks and the structure of this event as a very effective and successful engagement session

For future iterations of the workshop, it is recommended that:

  • the total number of pupils should be limited to around 40-50 in order to maximise engagement. For larger schools, run the event over multiple days in order to maintain this ratio.
  • The structure of the day is tweaked to include as much time as possible for the group challenge elements.

Acknowledgements

Clare Forshaw, Founder and Director of Hearing Conservation Association, and her colleagues. https://hearingconservation.org.uk/

References

[1] Health & Safety Executive “ Noise induced hearing loss in Great Britain” https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/deafness/index.htm . Accessed 13/12/21

[2] American Hearing Speech Language Association “Loud Noise dangers” https://www.asha.org/public/hearing/loud-noise-dangers/ . Accessed 13/12/21