No one doubts that communication is essential, whether the context is the home, school, or workplace. Surveys of employers often find that the ability to communicate effectively is the number one “soft skill” they seek in job candidates, ranked ahead of skills such as organization, critical thinking, and creativity. Yet sometimes it’s not individual employees but the company culture or even the physical environment that gets in the way of communicating more clearly.
When you think about it, there are three types of barriers to better communication: (1) People don’t have the will to communicate, (2) People don’t have the verbal ability to communicate, and (3) People aren’t able to be heard. While the first two are issues in almost any type of business setting, on a construction site the third is particularly relevant. Even those who take the responsibility for communicating can’t do so if they can’t get their message from A to B without interference from the physical world – i.e., noise and physical distance.
That can disrupt everything from the planning process to putting the final touches on a project. But most critically, it can profoundly affect health and safety. One in five workplace fatalities occurs in the construction industry. Every day two construction workers die of injuries related to their job. Of course, there are many non-fatal injuries that nonetheless cost lost wages and lost productivity; each year 1.7% of construction workers lose some work time due to injury. The rate of injury is 71% higher in construction compared to other industries.
Of course, when it comes to keeping injuries preventable, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration details not only rules and obligations for employers but rights for workers. Regarding communication, OSHA articulates a specific Right to Information:
OSHA gives workers and their representatives the right to see information that employers collect on hazards in the workplace. Workers have the right to know what hazards are present in the workplace and how to protect themselves. Many OSHA standards require various methods that employers must use to inform their employees, such as warning signs, color-coding, signals, and training. Workers must receive their normal rate of pay to attend training that is required by OSHA standards and rules. The training must be in a language and vocabulary that workers can understand.
In a sense, with this language OSHA is addressing any shortfall in the will to communicate; communication is not an option. Likewise, for those employers who may be less adept at verbal communication, OSHA articulates the message for them.
But when the problem results from noise levels or long distances, there is no specific obligation to make sure that one can be heard. It would seem that communicating warnings verbally lacks the rules and the mechanisms for enforcement that have been developed for written and/or visual communication.
This may be seen by some as a moot point, and they may be correct – in certain situations. When the threat to worker safety is known in advance – a storage area for hazardous chemicals, a shaky guardrail, a furnace that generates extreme temperatures – a sign or other visual communication would seem to provide all the warning necessary, and at minimum, the two parties would likely have ample time to clarify anything ambiguous.
But what about when a dangerous situation arises spontaneously? An elevated piece of equipment, tottering on the edge of a precipice, or a weakened piece of scaffolding about to give way? Only a verbal warning will make a difference. If that warning is obscured by noise or distance, an injury is likely. Yet there is no rule or regulation ensuring that employers ensure that workers are able to hear – protection against the hearing damage that can result from noisy environments, yes, but not from the dangers of being unable to hear a warning in those same noisy environments.
What might such a regulation entail? In fact, why wait for a regulation, when we know right now how to get the same result?
The solution is built around a system that makes high-noise communication headsets standard equipment for everyone entering a construction site. These headsets incorporate a noise-canceling microphone with a paired receiver/transceiver combination. They can be worn comfortably and without interfering with normal mobility or other job functions. And by putting the speaker’s voice directly in the listener’s ear, “bypassing” the noisy world between them, both can feel confident that the message is received clearly and unambiguously.
When people talk about “the right to be heard,” they’re generally doing so in an abstract sense. Making use of high-noise headsets in this way gives everyone a right to be heard that’s no less important because it’s in a more literal sense. And as a result, the injury statistics for the construction industry just might start trending in a more positive direction.