Police officers always have an ear tuned to their radios.
The radio’s chatter is the background accompaniment for their jobs, and it alerts them to emergencies that need their immediate attention. During an emergency, cops turn up the volume on their headsets to hear all the details over the noise of the incident and the rush of adrenaline.
But unlike factory employees, construction workers or airline mechanics, officers aren’t exposed to that kind of noise all day, every day.
So why do police officers suffer from hearing loss at a higher percentage than many other occupations?
Enter Lynn Gilbertson and her UW-Whitewater colleague Donna Vosburg with an answer and a better way of measuring sound.
Gilbertson, an associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, and Vosburg, an associate professor of occupational and environmental safety and human health, collaborated to develop an in-ear dosimeter, a device that measures noise in the ear canal.
The device, which has received a U.S. patent, provides a more accurate assessment of noise exposure than current devices, according to a news release from UW-Whitewater. Also listed on the patent as an inventor is Tim Klein, a private industry engineer.
When the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration measures sound in workplaces, it attaches microphone measuring devices to workers’ shoulders or headsets.
Then, because scientists know how the ear canal resonates, they are able to “calculate backwards” the impact of the sound, Gilbertson said.
But that doesn't work with earpiece wearers.
“You don’t know how often during a shift that sound is coming through their earpieces,” Gilbertson said. “You also can’t account of any changes in volume. They might turn it up if they’re around a lot of loud machinery or turn it down when they’re in someone’s home.”
Gilbertson is married to a police officer and advocates for hearing health.
She noticed police officers are at higher risk for hearing loss, but when the traditional sound measuring devices are used, they’re not measuring sound levels or doses above the levels set by OSHA.
She also noticed her husband was developing hearing loss in the ear in which he wears his earpiece, and it was continuing to get worse.
“A lot of the data out there was linking it to firearm training on the range,” Gilbertson said. “But officers are required to wear hearing protection on the range. So, yes, impact noise is a huge factor, but most officers are shooting their rifles or guns on duty.”
It was her curiosity on the subject that started the project, and then she realized that there weren’t any dosimeters on the market that could measure this kind of sound.
UW-Whitewater police helped prototype testing.
“We always want to assist students in positive endeavors, and I recognized the potential hearing improvement and protection their research could provide, UW-Whitewater Police Chief Matt Kiederlen said in a news release. “Understanding the effects that consistent radio usage has on users can only lead to improvements in equipment effectiveness and efficiencies.”
UW-Whitewater and UW-Platteville students and professors also worked on the project, collecting data and working in the lab.
Lab and field testing confirmed the hypothesis that an in-ear device would lead to more accurate measurements.
For Gilbertson, the work was more about hearing heath advocacy.
"I want to have more accurate data, more accurate representations of what people are experience with their auditory systems so we can keep them healthier for longer," Gilbertson said.