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Hear and Now Noise Safety Challenge Winners: Part 1 of 3

Posted on by Garrett Burnett, MS, MBA and Amanda Terminello, MPH

Every year 22 million workers are at risk of losing their hearing from workplace noise hazards. Work-related hearing loss is a widespread problem, but it is a problem that can be solved. On August 1, 2016, NIOSH, OSHA, and MSHA issued a challenge to inventors and entrepreneurs with the dual goals of inspiring creative ideas and raising business awareness of the market for workplace safety innovation. More than 30 entries were submitted and the top ten were invited to present their ideas at the Hear and Now Noise Safety Challenge event on October 27, 2016. A panel of judges consisting of business experts, investors, and innovation specialists listened to pitches, asked questions, and selected three winners based on the assumed effectiveness of the solution combined with its commercial viability. This blog entry is the first in a three-part series summarizing the solutions presented by the Challenge winners and finalists. References to products or services do not constitute an endorsement by NIOSH or the U.S. government.

1st Prize Winner:  Nick Laperle and Jeremie Voix

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Photo courtesy of EERS

In a noisy environment, workers have a dangerous choice: protecting their hearing or being able to communicate with team members. It is a conundrum Nick Laperle has pondered for a long time. His parents were pioneers in establishing hearing health clinics across Quebec. The meal time conversation in the Laperle household swirled around ears and decibels. Not surprisingly, Mr. Laperle has been working in hearing-related industries and has been involved with international organizations to eradicate noise-induced hearing loss for the last twenty years.

When he founded his own company, he took on the challenge of both blocking dangerous noise and enabling communication in loud environments. It is something that traditional or standard hearing protection does not currently allow. He also wanted to create a product that could monitor how well the hearing protection fits in users’ ears because workers are not generally aware of whether or not their hearing protection is adequate. Mr. Laperle recruited Jeremie Voix to lead the technical development of the project. Dr. Voix, publisher of over 65 research articles and 15 designs and patents, began developing innovative algorithms to enhance the auditory experience.

At the Hear and Now Noise Safety Challenge, Mr. Laperle and Dr. Voix presented EERS, an industrial IoT (Internet of Things) device designed to provide industrial hearing protection, high noise communication, and monitoring. The EERS hardware includes noise-blocking ear plugs that connect to a small monitor that is worn on the worker’s body. The earplugs contain in-ear microphones with Bluetooth connectivity that allow for clear phone or radio communication. EERS analyzes the fit and protection level when a worker inserts the earplugs. If the earplugs aren’t fitted properly at any point during the day, an auditory signal warns the worker to refit the earplugs.

The EERS monitor continuously tracks and stores data regarding the use of the device. Workers’ protection levels are continuously logged and wirelessly transmitted. If any issues arise, the system sends warnings to management so they can take corrective measures as needed. An optional smartphone app can also provide educational information to workers while enabling them to personally monitor their hearing health.

“We’ve been focused on one goal,” Mr. Laperle explained: “To develop a system that will end this problem at a price to fit every H and S [health and safety] budget. With EERS, a worker can communicate and stay protected at all times, a health and safety administrator can review reports on the status of their worker’s hearing health, and an executive can sleep well knowing hearing loss is being addressed for his workers and the company.”

Mr. Laperle and Dr. Voix are rolling out the beta program with three manufacturing companies in early 2017 and are currently exploring opportunities to promote and further this innovative hearing solution.

The panel of judges selected Mr. Laperle and Dr. Voix as the winners of the Hear and Now Noise Safety Challenge. For Mr. Laperle, it was another step down the path his parents had blazed across Quebec all those years ago.

More about this Hear and Now Challenge finalist, including contact information, is available at the following website: http://eers.ca.

 

2nd Prize Winner: Brendon Dever

When Brendon Dever started in the construction industry, he noticed that products designed to protect workers were not necessarily keeping pace with modern technology. He saw an empty space in the occupational safety and health market for innovative solutions to common safety and health problems. He pulled together a team of engineers and designers and set out to tackle a problem that is prominent in construction (as well as in many other industries): noise-induced hearing loss. In 2013, Mr. Dever and his cousin Clark Dever with partners Ralph Lewis, Brian Bezanson, George Hampton, and Bryan Seymour began exploring the idea of using wearable sensors that would personalize worker safety. They designed a system, which they called Heads Up Safe, for alerting workers about dangerous noise levels, recording hazard data, and providing noninvasive communication to work crews.

At many worksites, noise levels fluctuate and workers may not be aware of the dose of noise they are exposed to. The idea from the Heads Up Safe team was to combine an inexpensive wearable sensor with an unobtrusive alert system. After consulting with audiologists and neuroscientists and testing prototypes with hundreds of workers, the team built a sensor that is affixed to glasses or head protection—which they refer to as a “glider”—and a software platform that records and reports the data collected by the sensor. The glider lights up with color-coded alerts and warnings based on input from the sensor. The glider wirelessly transmits exposure metrics to mobile devices and the cloud. The recorded measurements are used to calculate time-weighted averages, which are compared against permissible exposure limits. As workers approach these limits, the system is designed to notify both the worker (via lights on the glider) and management (using cloud-based reporting).

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Photo courtesy of Heads Up Safe

At the Hear and Now event, Mr. Dever demonstrated the noise sensor (which he wore attached to his glasses), the notification system, and the data reporting tool. He explained how the software and hardware are now integrated into a mobile app that ties the lighting system on the glider to incoming messages on the worker’s phone so the lights can provide alerts on more than just noise readings. According to Mr. Dever, workers will only receive phone messages via the glider that are relevant to their work, which should minimize distractions from mobile phones and maximize their use as job tools.

Currently, Mr. Dever and his team are focused on serving existing customers and growing their new business venture. However, the team plans to extend the technology in the future to address other personal-monitoring safety issues such as temperature, humidity, noxious gas, and silica exposure.

More about this Hear and Now Challenge finalist, including contact information, is available at the following website: www.headsupsafe.com

 

3rd Prize Winner: Madeline Bennett

In 2013, fans of the Seattle Seahawks NFL football team broke the world record for producing the most noise ever in a sports stadium with an ear-splitting 137.5 dB. To put this into perspective, being in an environment that is 115 dB, a person can reach their maximum daily limit in less than 30 seconds and repeated exposures at such levels may cause hearing damage. This impressive feat of lung power inspired Madeline Bennett. As she pondered a class assignment as a student at the University of Washington, Ms. Bennett thought about ways to encourage rowdy sports fans to protect their hearing as they cheered. She fell upon the idea of creating a detachable earplug attachment that transformed dull hearing protection into something cool. She thought she could remove the social stigma of using earplugs. Ms. Bennett has a history of social entrepreneurship as the founder of the nonprofit organization Owl Be Better with Music, which recently celebrated its 5th anniversary, so she was ready to turn her classroom Eureka into a product.

She started by assembling a team. Ms. Bennett recruited Dr. Kelly Tremblay, an audiologist and neuroscientist with numerous published works. Traci Bennett was brought onboard to lead operations based on her experience as a small business consultant. Designer Serina Rockwell took creative lead thanks to her packaging design experience with brands like Disney, Nike, and ABC family.

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Photo courtesy of Octogear

The team created prototypes with the idea that hearing protection should not only protect ears from dangerous decibel levels, but that it could also make a fashion statement. They called their invention Otogear. Ms. Bennett and her team had the vision of turning Otogear into the go-to collectable memorabilia for workers, concert-goers, sports fans, and even award show attendees. The team hoped that in loud-noise situations, Otogear would get people excited about using hearing protection.

Ultimately Ms. Bennett wants to see Otogear decorating ear plugs, no matter the occasion.

As Ms. Bennett explained at the Hear and Now Noise Safety Challenge event, she wanted Otogear to be an extension of a user’s personality. She said, “Kids, teens, adults and seniors can enjoy wearing hearing protection, which can lead to a new generation of hearing protection users.” Each Otogear pair is matched with hearing protection with dB reduction ratings ranging from 15 to 35 dB for all types of noise environments. The team’s patent on Otogear is pending, and they are currently working on branding opportunities with event promoters, manufacturing companies, and sports teams. Ms. Bennett is currently trying to raise additional funding and support required for tooling, product development, prototype creation, and market entry.  The markets envisioned by Ms. Bennett’s team include manufacturers, businesses, and workers for whom hearing protection in noisy work environments is critical for avoiding job-related hearing loss.

The judges awarded Ms. Bennett third prize for her innovation, an honor she added to laurels earned in the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge and University of Washington’s Foster School of Business Business Plan Competition.

More about this Hear and Now Challenge finalist, including contact information, is available at the following website: http://www.otogear.net/.

Watch for next week’s blog highlighting three of the Challenge finalists.

 

Garrett Burnett, MS, MBA, is a technical advisor in NIOSH’s Research to Practice Office and an assistant coordinator for NIOSH’s Small Business Assistance Program.

Amanda Terminello, MPH, is a Public Health Advisor in NIOSH’s Research to Practice Office.

Posted on by Garrett Burnett, MS, MBA and Amanda Terminello, MPH

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