Hearing loss is something green asset company Treescape has always taken seriously.
With most of its 700 staff using chainsaws, woodchippers and other hazardously noisy equipment, it’s no surprise that the use of good hearing protection is established practice.
But the fact that its co-founder and current chief engineering officer Brandon Whiddett lives with severe hearing loss in one ear means the company has also grown up knowing the other side of the story: the need to tailor communications so those with hearing impairment are not left out.
As a result, a dual focus on hearing-related matters has been part of the company’s ethos since Whiddett and current executive chairman Ed Chignell first set themselves up as on-call tree trimmers almost 40 years ago.
In the past two years, however, both sides of this issue have come in for renewed attention, and today the company prides itself, not only on sparing no expense to protect the hearing of its people, but also on being able to provide safe and healthy work for those with significant hearing loss.
In early 2019 the company was one of the first in the country to be deemed a hearing-accredited workplace by the National Foundation for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (NFDHH), a testimony to its commitment in these areas and a means of accessing the specialist information and resources that would help it achieve these goals.
Around the same time, the decision to employ a profoundly deaf field worker also proved a catalyst for changes in work practice that have gone on to become the new normal.
Treescape’s chief people and safety officer Patrick Crofskey says the worker, Rodney Simchowitz, had been turned down for more than a hundred jobs before gaining a place on Treescape’s environmental consultancy team. And although he has since left to work in an organisation representing the hearing impaired, what the company learnt from him about the need for a multi-faceted response to hearing impairment continues to be put to good use, he says.
“We knew this was an area where we wanted to be right at the very sharp end. But the more we got into the whole area of hearing, the more complex we found it to be, so the advice Rodney was able to give us was really valuable.”
At a purely practical level, the company found existing technology could be easily adapted to maintain contact with Simchowitz in the field and provide the information he needed to work safely. However a suite of training material provided by NFDHH highlighted another critical issue linked to hearing loss that wasn’t as easy to resolve.
It came in the form of a survey of hearing-impaired workers, 90% of whom reported feelings of depression, isolation or hopelessness, and being physically and mentally exhausted by the end of the day.
Recognising that communication problems were likely to be a big part of the issue, the company arranged for Simchowitz’s workmates to receive sign language training. But there was also a simultaneous realisation that the problem was likely to be more widely spread, and that other employees with less severe hearing issues could be dealing with similar feelings.
The invisible disability
“We already had full pre-employment health assessments and had recently introduced an annual hearing screening programme, so we knew that around 37% of our mobile workers had some degree of hearing loss,” Crofskey says. “We also had an existing programme of mental health awareness training which was – and is – part of our staff induction programme, and this made us realise there could be a real synergy between these two areas.”
Since then, workshops and training programmes have ensured all staff and managers understand how to support hearing impaired co-workers, and the workers themselves know it’s ok to say if they’re not ok.
“Hearing loss is known as an invisible disability because those affected often hide it from their employer, for fear it will limit their career prospects,” Crofskey says. “But it is also a very common issue, with one in five teenagers estimated to have some measure of hearing loss, and problems known to increase as people age.
“This is why we are committed to creating a workplace where those with hearing disabilities feel confident to raise issues, and to speak up if things aren’t going well for them.”
In tandem with these initiatives the company also runs a robust hearing protection programme, which again has a strong focus on increasing worker understanding of the issues involved.
“A few years back we just used to give people hearing protection and hope they’d wear it.
“Now we do a lot of training around it, so they know how to mitigate risks to their hearing and understand that this is about them and their long-term quality of life.”
The training deals with workplace exposures, of course, but also draws attention to the high noise levels associated with some leisure pursuits, including video games and loud cars.
“It’s all about wrap-around care. We’re not worried about hiring people with hearing loss, but when they’re with us we do everything we can to maintain the hearing they have, and to minimise age-related decline.”
Treescape also works closely with its suppliers to ensure the hearing protection it provides is the best it can get, in terms of noise attenuation, compatibility with other protective equipment such as helmets, and suitability for those who have specific needs, such as one South Island worker with cochlear implants. All gear is routinely monitored, and seals and foam inserts are replaced at three to six month intervals, or more frequently if requested.
But good worker buy-in is still the key to effective PPE use, and Crofskey says the company will always rely on its staff to use and maintain their equipment correctly.
“We give them all the facilities and training to do it, but we need them to take ownership to ensure it remains fit for service.”
Although PPE is a vital part of the hearing protection programme it is by no means the only avenue the company uses to reduce noise exposure. Regular noise assessments ensure machines are operating as they should, complaints about excess noise levels are followed up promptly, and the company has also been experimenting with engineering solutions, such as swapping to electric chainsaws in some situations.
“We’re even looking at options for an electric woodchipper, which is possibly a world-first.”
Two years down the track, the company is pleased with the results it is seeing from its package of initiatives. Workers are now far more willing to discuss any concerns they may have about noise levels or hearing issues, and they keep a watchful eye on their own mental wellbeing and that of their colleagues, Crofskey says.
“We’d really encourage other companies to follow our lead and become hearing-accredited workplaces so they, like us, can provide meaningful work to the deaf and hard of hearing, and lessen the mental health impact for those who live with this disability.”