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Managing the Interrelated Impact of Ergonomics, Heat, and Noise Exposure in Industrial Settings

By Toni-Louise Gianatti
Last updated: July 10, 2024
Key Takeaways

Heat, noise, and ergonomic hazards all play off each other, creating a complex web of risks. Meeting this difficult safety challenge requires advanced technology.

Interior of a steel mill, with open flames present as part of the production process
Source: miraclemoments (Envato Elements)

Industrial settings are complex environments where workers are exposed to a number of hazards simultaneously. Industrial work can be noisy, the facilities can be hot, and the physical labor can create poor ergonomic conditions.

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These hazards are serious enough on their own, but simultaneous exposure to heat, noise, and ergonomic stressors significantly increases the risk of injury and has a stronger impact on worker health and safety. These factors are not isolated and shouldn’t be treated as such. Their combined effects can amplify the overall stress on workers, leading to reduced productivity and a cascade of health issues.

Heat, Noise, and Ergonomics in the Workplace

Heat stress occurs when the body cannot adequately dissipate heat, typically as a result of prolonged exposure to high temperatures. This can lead to various heat-related illnesses, ranging from mild conditions such as heat rashes and heat cramps to more severe ones like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. 

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Heat stress not only impairs physical health but also diminishes cognitive function. This reduces alertness and impairs decision-making, both of which are critical for working safely in industrial settings.

Roughly 2.4 billion people are at risk of encountering extreme heat while at work, resulting in approximately 18,970 fatalities and 2.09 million disability-adjusted life years each year. In 2022, the US saw 51 fatalities due to temperature extremes, an increase of 18.6% from the year before.

Over the same period, US employers reported 502,380 workplace musculoskeletal disorders resulting in at least one day away from work.

A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that an astounding 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise levels annually. That exposure is far from harmless – 58% of reported hearing difficulties among these workers are attributable to workplace noise exposure.

Noise exposure is particularly prevalent in industries such as manufacturing, construction, and mining. While hearing loss is typically the focus, noise has also been linked to various negative health outcomes such as stress, sleep disturbances, and impaired cognitive performance. These effects can significantly impact an individual’s overall well-being and quality of life. It can also heighten distraction, which can contribute to incidents and injuries.

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Scientific Evidence of Interrelated Impacts

Each of these hazards is a cause for concern. When they’re all present at once, however, the risks are even greater.

Heat and noise compound the risks associated with each. High noise levels can distract workers from recognizing the signs of heat stress, delaying necessary interventions and increasing the risk of a serious heat-related illness. Meanwhile, the physiological strain imposed by extreme heat can heighten the body’s sensitivity to noise, exacerbating its adverse effects.

A recent study published in the Journal of Health and Safety at Work examined how concurrent exposure to heat and noise affects workers. The study simulated typical industrial conditions, tracking stress levels through salivary cortisol and measuring attention with visual and auditory tests. The findings revealed that combinations of high noise (85-95 dB) and high temperatures (29-34°C) significantly increased mental workload and reduced attention. This dual exposure also boosted the stress response.

A survey of 56 industrial unit managers in the oil industry in Oman examined a third variable – not just noise and heat, but ergonomics as well. The research found a significant correlation between poor ergonomic conditions and higher injury rates, with heat and noise further worsening these conditions. Heat stress in particular led to ergonomic injuries due to fatigue, reduced cognitive function, and general discomfort.

A 2022 study explored the impact of stress on cognition. Participants were given tasks to perform after physical exertion in a heated environment. Their performance revealed that the thermal strain caused significant impairment to their reaction time, memory, and attention. 

A recent comprehensive review of 22 studies spanning six countries looked at nearly 22 million cases of occupational injuries. The authors found a correlation between hot weather and injuries. Specifically, a 1% increased risk of injury for every 1°C rise in temperature above normal. During heatwaves, the risk jumps by 17%. 

Another detailed review of existing research came to a similar conclusion. The study found that each 1°C rise in temperature leads to a 0.5% increased risk of injury, with young and male workers being especially vulnerable. 

All the evidence points to the same conclusion. Heat, noise, and ergonomic hazards are not only potentially harmful themselves, but they play against each other and substantially increase the risk of injury. These factors place additional stress on workers, which can result in fatigue, distraction, and inattention. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of incidents and injuries.

The research detailed above highlights the urgent need for prevention strategies that take into account the interrelated effects of these hazards. Risk assessments must consider how these hazards compound, rather than looking at each of them in isolation. Control methods must be suitable to the increased level of risk workers face when heat, noise, and physical discomfort bear down on them.

Leveraging Generative AI to Address Interconnected Occupational Risks

The complex interconnections between these hazards requires a smarter approach to risk management. Safety professionals who wish to ensure the safety of industrial workers should consider using generative AI (Gen AI) solutions to meet this daunting challenge. 

Gen AI’s ability to ingest vast amounts of data and comprehend safety standards makes it a valuable asset for creating effective responses to difficult health and safety issues. According to a recent McKinsey report, organizations are already seeing material benefits from using Gen AI technology, including lower costs and jumps in revenue. 

AI models built with EHS principles and knowledge bases can create, guide, and assist in developing and maintaining exposure plans with remarkable accuracy. Unlike generic AI tools, these specialized models can deliver high-value outputs by focusing on critical aspects of workplace safety.

Here are some of the main benefits of using Gen AI solutions to manage complex and interrelated risks in industrial settings.

Improving Communication and Buy-In

AI-powered assistants can answer complex safety-related questions in a fraction of the time it would take to scour documents to find the information. This empowers safety professionals to make informed arguments in favor of enhanced safety measures and ensures that those recommendations are based on solid evidence. 

These assistants are powered by natural language processing (NLP) models, which means they are capable of creating outputs that are phrased in an accessible and understandable way. This makes it easy to comprehend even for those who aren’t particularly tech-savvy or don’t have extensive expertise in health and safety. This significantly lowers the learning curve, allowing safety professionals to have greater influence over decision-making at higher levels of their organizations.

Improved communication about health and safety can help foster a stronger safety culture. Better advocacy for these interventions can also result in investments in more effective safety solutions, the implementation of stronger safety protocols, and faster buy-in from management.

Streamlining Safety Protocols

Generative AI can also generate comprehensive hazard analysis reports and update them on an ongoing basis. This ensures that your organization’s safety measures are up to date and anticipate potential hazards before they become a problem. Dynamic safety protocols are better suited to address the complex nature of industrial environments. 

Enhancing Efficiency and Reducing Costs

By automating routine tasks and analyzing large volumes of data quickly, AI tools can make managing a safety program more efficient. AI-powered tools can, for instance, assist in reviewing health and safety policies, permits, and tasks, performing analyses that would require a safety professional days to complete. Increasing output from the safety department can help them tackle difficult interrelated hazards, even with limited resources.

The associated cost savings can also be significant. These funds can then be redirected to interventions that help manage heat and noise on the worksite. They can also be invested in wearable devices that can help employees remain mindful of ergonomic risks, even while working in high-distraction environments.

Complex Problems Require Powerful Solutions

Heat, noise, and ergonomic hazards can be difficult to control individually. When combined, they can seem practically impossible to assess and manage. 

These risks have interrelated impacts, which makes it essential to address them collectively and comprehensively. Single factor analyses aren’t enough – safety professionals need a complex understanding of the risks they deal with. And this is far more feasible with the support of a dedicated AI solution.

Heat, noise, and musculoskeletal risks affect countless industrial workers every day. We need to take every step we can to protect them, because working in high-risk environments doesn’t mean anyone should get hurt.

Ready to learn more? Check out our free webinar on 3 Steps to an Impactful Heat Stress Prevention Program!

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Written by Toni-Louise Gianatti | Content Manager

Toni-Louise Gianatti
Toni-Louise Gianatti brings over 25 years of experience in biomechanically optimized movement and posture training. Her journey led her to partner with Soter, an innovative company specializing in AI safety technology.

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