Some 600 cases of noise-induced hearing impairment are reported by the Norwegian petroleum industry every year. A new, intelligent earplug is now set to alleviate the problem.

Norway's largest company, Statoil ASA, is taking the problems associated with noise exposure seriously. Over the course of four years the international energy company has led efforts to further develop an existing combined hearing protection and communication product for use on offshore platforms.

World's most advanced hearing protection device

A microphone on the outside of the new "offshore" version of the QUIETPRO earplug picks up ambient sounds. The sound is digitally processed, and unwanted loud noises are filtered out before the sound is sent to a speaker inside the earplug. Users can adjust the level of ambient sound, as desired.

A microphone on the inside of the earplug picks up speech signals through the skull. This means that users do not have to have a microphone in front of their mouth, as is the case with the ear protection devices currently used on most offshore platforms. Another advantage is that the microphone inside the ear does not pick up background noise in the way that a microphone in front of the mouth does.

The QUIETPRO hearing protection and communication device was originally developed for military use by the Trondheim-based company Nacre AS, which has its origins in Scandinavia's largest independent research organisation, SINTEF. The company's customers include the United States Army, which uses QUIETPRO devices in armoured vehicles, among other applications.

More energy and increased safety

"The new hearing protection device enables employees to preserve a lot of energy," explains Asle Melvær, noise specialist at Statoil, who initiated and is responsible for the R&D project Offshore Safety for Hearing and Verbal Communication (SoHot). The project receives funding under the Research Council of Norway's Large-scale Programme for Optimal Management of Petroleum Resources (PETROMAKS).

"Users of the new device do not have to strain to hear what is being said over the radio, and the noise reduction system in the earplug means that the level of sound is adapted to the surrounding environment. On board an oil platform understanding messages transmitted by radio can be a matter of life and death," states Mr Melvær.

The earplug also alerts the user if it is not inserted into the ear correctly, providing additional safety.

New generation soon to be tested

The hearing protection device was tested in 2009 on the helicopter landing pad at the Oseberg Field Centre outside Bergen. Starting in December 2010 the next generation of devices will be tested both there and at the Snorre oilfield a little further north.

"One important feature of the new version is a built-in noise dose meter that emits a warning signal before any damage to hearing has occurred which is quite unique," explains an enthusiastic Asle Melvær. "This function will make it possible for us to withdraw personnel from hazardous noise areas before they have been exposed to noise levels that can damage their hearing."

The new earplug is explosion-proof and can be used anywhere on the platform.

Important initiative

"It is wonderful to be able to play a role in the development of new technology that will undoubtedly reduce the number of cases of hearing damage among employees in the petroleum industry," says Mr Melvær. "Nevertheless, it is important to emphasise that the development of better hearing protection must not become an excuse for failing to implement measures to reduce noise levels. This should still be given first priority," he states.

Research Council supports HSE projects

The PETROMAKS programme is responsible for the Research Council's health, safety and environment-related (HSE) activities within the petroleum sector. "Efforts to develop a new version of the QUIETPRO earplug provide a good example of the type of creative projects that exist in this field that make use of technology and system solutions across sectors," explains Tor-Petter Johnsen, Adviser for the PETROMAKS programme.

"Close cooperation between advanced Norwegian technology groups and highly skilled customers in the petroleum industry has not only led to the development of a new product but has also provided better insight into the serious health risks to which employees in the industry are exposed," Mr Johnsen concludes.

Source: Research Council of Norway, AlphaGalileo Foundation.

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