OSHA. Those four letters strike a special kind of fear — or even disdain — in the minds of plenty of tire dealers.
After nearly 50 years in the transportation industry, including the last 23 at Erlanger, Ky.-based Bob Sumerel Tire Co., Bob Hickey has decided it doesn’t have to be that way.
As executive director of operations at Bob Sumerel Tire, for the last two-plus years, Hickey has led safety efforts for all of the company’s service locations and production facilities, including retread plants and wheel refinishing operations — not to mention the dealership’s 110 commercial service trucks on the road.
Those facilities are spread across four states and involve hundreds of employees. And yes, they’ve been the sites of inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
But Bob Sumerel Tire doesn’t consider the agency its enemy. Instead, it views OSHA as a consultative partner.
“We’ve taken a stand of ‘Let’s call them. Let’s build a relationship.’ As an employer or company, you should have nothing to hide. If you’ve got things to hide, then every day you wake up worrying about not only how to run your business, make money and pay your employees. Now you’re going to worry about ‘What if OSHA walks in the door?’”
Hickey says the Sumerel family doesn’t want to take on that stress and he doesn’t either.
“My goal is to get OSHA into all of my facilities and work with them, because it never hurts to have a fresh set of eyes come into a facility.”
The ears have it
While Hickey believes in the power of an extra set of eyes, lately Bob Sumerel Tire has been focusing on its employees’ ears.
The dealership has instituted a company-wide program that includes annual hearing tests and audiogram reports for employees exposed to higher noise levels.
This includes employees in retread plants and those who work in wheel refinishing, plus tire service technicians and mechanical technicians.
“We have probably gone a little overboard” requiring tests for all of those technicians.
But Hickey says after studying the decibel ratings of the pneumatic tools and air inflation tools technicians use, conducting annual tests seems like a good cost-value proposition.
“I thought there was a lot of value in doing those. We’ve got a good baseline we’re building on.”
Of the 14,500 hearing loss cases reported in private industry during 2019, 75.9% occurred in manufacturing, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, 5,000 fewer cases of hearing loss were reported in 2019 than during 2009.
Chart: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Bob Sumerel Tire also is working with a startup company that provides constant noise monitoring via small, non-intrusive dosimeters that are connected to the internet and allow for real-time measuring and reporting.
Users can set alarms to be notified if noise levels exceed OSHA regulations or any level. (OSHA requires companies to measure sound levels if exposures meet or exceed 85 decibels.)
Jeff Wilson is the president and founder of Soundtrace, the noise monitoring solutions provider that Bob Sumerel Tire uses. He says monitoring and measuring sound isn’t new. But automating the process is.
He compares Soundtrace monitors to a Fitbit exercise tracker and says if someone wears a Fitbit one day a year, it doesn’t really provide a good picture of a person’s overall health.
It works the same way with noise monitors that are set up for a few hours on the floor of a manufacturing facility.
“We have a lot of samples (where) one day the noise level is 85 (decibels.) Then the next day it’s 88.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) — which establishes the federal safety recommendations that OSHA enforces — says workers shouldn’t be exposed to more than 85 decibels for eight hours.
Wilson says higher readings add more danger and risk of permanent injury. NIOSH says as noise levels rise above that 85 decibel mark, every three-decibel increase accounts for a 200% increase.
Wilson explains that it doesn’t take much to reach those levels, as normal conversations can hit the 75- or 80-decibel range.
Soundtrace monitors have shown the noise at a tire builder station in a retread shop is 87 decibels. Noise at inspection stations typically reaches the same level.
Noise generated by a buffer machine has ranged from 95 to 100 decibels. Noise levels at skive stations have measured anywhere from 88 to 93 decibels.
Wilson was surprised when tire repair stations were noisier than what he expected, exceeding the 90 decibel mark.
In some industries, noise and hearing damage used to be considered something that “comes with the job,” he notes. And while noise-induced hearing loss is common, it’s also preventable.
He points to the words of an OSHA official.
“Earning a living should not come at the expense of hearing loss,” William Donovan, then the acting OSHA regional administrator in Chicago, Ill., said at the start of an initiative to protect manufacturing workers’ hearing.
Bob Sumerel Tire is using two kinds of Soundtrace noise monitors in its facilities — a stationary monitor that is attached to a work station and a personal, wearable monitor that can be worn by employees or moved from one spot to another. A forklift driver could wear a monitor throughout the day, for example, and then noise level peaks can be matched with GPS data to identify dangerous locations.Photo: Soundtrace
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18 million workers were exposed to potentially damaging noise in 2019. And the incident rate in manufacturing was almost four times higher than the all-industry average.
In the last three years, OSHA has placed a new focus on hearing safety.
The 50 states are split up into 10 OSHA regions and eight of the 10 have adopted programs that put a special emphasis on noise levels and noise safety in the workplace. (Regions nine and 10 haven’t adopted a local or regional emphasis program, which means the following states aren’t currently covered by one of these programs: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.)
Each region is handling its own program separately and there are differences between them. Some are focusing on certain industries. But generally they have a common goal of reducing occupational noise exposure by providing outreach and education to businesses and facilities in their territories. Inspections and enforcement also are part of the programs.
Region five, for example, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, had 759 noise violations between the years 2013 and 2019, according to the agency’s Regional Emphasis Program summary.
The bulk of those were in two broad manufacturing categories, which would include tire manufacturing and retreading.
Soundtrace President and Founder Jeff Wilson credits Bob Sumerel Tire with being an “early adopter” of integrating constant noise-monitoring technology into its workplaces. He says the company’s tests have opened the doors to other tire dealerships and tire manufacturers, which are following Sumerel’s lead.Photo: Soundtrace
Testing two monitors
Wilson calls Soundtrace “a proactive and intelligent monitoring solution that provides insights and actionable improvements.”
Soundtrace monitors are calibrated and tested according to OSHA standards — unlike the decibel reading apps available on your cell phone. All data is retained in the cloud.
That can be useful if an OSHA inspector walks into a facility and inquires about a business’ noise levels and related safety protocols, says Wilson.
Hickey has had that happen since partnering with Soundtrace. In the last year, Bob Sumerel Tire has tested two kinds of noise monitors from the supplier. One is a stationary monitor that is affixed to a workstation and the other is a mobile wearable monitor.
In 2017, the company was cited for a noise violation at its facility in Leetsdale, Pa. Last year, there was another inspection of that same store. Hickey says OSHA found “a couple of small things — nothing major. We worked with them.”
The OSHA inspector was aware of the noise monitoring the tire dealership had been conducting.
“I might be completely wrong, but I tend to think they saw the work we’re doing (and said). ‘Here’s a little bit of a fine. Keep up the good work, but these are some areas you need to continue to work on.’ We continue to fine-tune those areas.”
The inspector suggested Bob Sumerel Tire contact an OSHA consultant to come in and help as they made more adjustments.
“We did have those people come in, spend three days and they worked with us as we redid our policies,” says Hickey. “They’ve helped us revamp a lot of our safety policies in the last six to eight months.
“At the end of the day, the folks at OSHA have a job to do. They’re trying to help you and help your employees stay safe.”
Data from a Soundtrace noise monitor shows how noise levels can vary throughout the day and from one day to another.Photo: Soundtrace
A culture of safety
Hickey sees the tire industry’s interest and focus on safety and personal protective equipment (PPE) evolving. “In the last 10 years, it seems like safety and personal protective equipment have just started to grab hold.”
He’s learned that it takes constant maintenance and oversight and says safety is an ever-evolving part of the business. One piece of that is written policies, which need to be reviewed and updated.
“Do they meet today’s needs? Do they meet the needs of the employees you now employ? We started going back and rewriting all of our policies. You needed a masters degree to understand the language of those policies. If the lowest common denominator couldn’t read it and understand it, you might as well not have a policy at all.”
Hickey says Bob Sumerel Tire is building a culture of safety. He says the company’s OSHA inspections have sharpened that focus.
Hickey asks team members to think about whether they’re “dressed for success.” From a safety standpoint, he wants employees to run through this checklist:
- Am I wearing PPE?
- Is my mindset going to be focused on safety?
- Am I going to stay focused and avoid distractions?
- Am I ready to maintain the equipment I’m working with and on?
- Am I going to do everything I can to be safe?
“That’s part of us trying to change our culture.”
Hickey admits he loves reviewing the countless, tiny details that add up to overseeing the company’s operations. “As crazy as it sounds, I really enjoy getting into the nitty- gritty of it.”