By CHRIS CLARKE, Industrial Communications Consultant, Sena Industrial
Managers know that good communication is essential to productivity, but it is not always easy. In noisy plants, workers must often resort to shouting and reading lips. During the COVID pandemic, when workers are socially distant and masked, this approach has become almost impossible.
Two-way radios can help, but they are hard to use with hearing protection, and they require workers to press a button to talk, taking their hands off task. One bottling plant and its piping contractor overcame this challenge by adopting new digital communication headsets with built-in hearing protection.
Osage Piping & Fabricating, Inc. is an ISN-certified piping system design and contracting firm located in Highspire, PA. When working on a piping installation project for a large beverage production facility, the customer reached out to Dustin Zehring, senior vice president at Osage, and recommended that Osage’s commissioning team use a Mesh communication system after finding success with the system in their own operations.
“They were using wireless headsets to have daily production meetings on the floor; they’d go to their whiteboards at each production area and have their meetings with people standing 10 to 20 feet apart,” said Zehring, who is in charge of food and process safety management at Osage. “They’re still having very good conversations because they can hear each other, and it helps keep social distancing.”
Commissioning teams for Osage’s piping installations did not have a communication technology solution, instead depending on shouting and lip reading to communicate with each other. Adopting the same headsets were a good solution for the team due to a variety of factors, the first being safety due to COVID safety practices. The second factor was just the noise in the plant.
The headsets, made by Sena Industrial, offer noise attenuation capabilities and protect worker hearing in loud environments. The over-the-ear headsets have a noise-reduction rating of 26 decibels and the hard-hat mountable headsets have a noise-reduction rating of 24 decibels. “Wireless communication filled the gap, especially with COVID, when we couldn’t hear each other because we’re so far apart and our mouths are covered,” said Zehring “It really helps with commissioning.”
He also noted the value that lip-reading had played with previous person-to-person communication, which is not possible when workers wear masks. Using headsets even speeds up commissioning overall, thanks to communucation that is inherently safer and just more efficient.
“Where there would be guys up on top of a tank and they’d be calling each other on their cell phones to say turn the valve on or off, that went out the door when they started using the headsets,” explained Zehring. “Now they can talk to their whole team at the same time. When you’re up on top of some of these tanks – that can be 20 feet up in the air – cell phones used to be the only way to communicate with someone on the floor. But now we have hands-free technology. We don’t have to do anything other than speak – so it's pretty convenient.”
CLOSED SYSTEM, SECURE CIRCLE
Because the headsets operate on Sena's proprietary protocol, the commissioning team’s headsets communicate wirelessly and create their own network without needing Wi-Fi, cellular signals or power. They operate completely separate from other systems within a plant and require no additional setup when moving on to the next project.
“Even without the problems of COVID, it’s a good way for people to communicate in a noisy factory,” added Zehring. "It’s difficult to yell over machinery, and when your point is important, then it’s great that you can hear somebody instead of having to repeat yourself three or four times, or have to get right next to someone for them to understand what you’re saying.”
The Mesh Intercom system has a range of about half a mile. Each headset acts as a node, extending the range. Virtually any number of headsets can be on a network. Work teams can talk on dedicated channels or to everybody. Optional adapters enable the network to communicate with any brand of Bluetooth headsets, mobile phones, and even PLCs that are Bluetooth-enabled.
With Mesh-enabled technology, Osage was able to see firsthand what its team could accomplish with better communication.
“I’ve been in manufacturing for more than 20 years, and used other devices that you have to have the speakers right up to your ear and have the volume up so loud. I wish I would have had these headsets back when I was working in factories as a plant engineer. It would have made it a lot easier for our crews,” said Zehring.
The pandemic has impacted industry in many ways. Finding strategies to stay safe while improving productivity and performance has been a key indicator of success in these difficult times.
The author is an industrial communications consultant at Sena Industrial. For more, visit senaindustrial.com.