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Work Environment: Responding to Alarming Systems

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Fire or emergency alerting systems can be modified for use by deaf or hard of hearing individuals. Visual or tactile alerting mechanisms can be substituted for the traditional audible signal. Alarms can be purchased which have lights, or lights can be hard wired to an existing system. It may also be helpful to monitor the auditory signal and then transmit a visual or tactile cue to a strategically placed receiver in the individual's environment or one which s/he can wear. The "buddy system" should never be relied on as the sole means of alerting a hearing impaired individual to emergency situations.

Responding to Other Sounds in the Environment

There may be other sounds in the work environment to which an individual needs to respond. What type of alerting system to use will depend upon what type of sound the person needs to be alerted to.

Computers often provide some type of auditory cue to alert a user when s/he makes an error, when e mail has been received or when there is a problem with the equipment. The equipment maybe able to be modified to substitute screen or cursor flashes for an auditory signal. Software is available that can perform this function. Windows 95 actually has this option built into the accessibility features: Sound Sentry. Macintosh computers have the option built in as well.

For other sounds that may need to be heard such as a telephone, doorbell, alarm clock, buzzer, or malfunctioning equipment, a substitution of a visual or tactile signal may also be used in place of an auditory one. This may be achieved by using a monitor/signaling device or by possibly hard wiring a light to a sound source for a visual cue. A vibrating signal can be very useful in the work environment. Vibration can alert a worker to a sound in their environment with minimal distraction to other coworkers.

Another option to consider to assist a person with hearing loss in responding to various sounds might be the use of a specially trained hearing dog. A hearing dog can alert an employee to a telephone ringing, a person entering the room or maybe abnormal machinery sounds. Hearing dogs are trained to work and are not simply pets. When a hearing dog is "on duty," the dog is not to socialize and will not if properly trained. Never pet an animal who is "on duty" without first asking for permission from the owner.

At this time there is no national certification for service animals, but a service animal will typically wear a harness or cape of some kind which will indicate that the animal is a "working dog."

Difficulty with Extraneous Noises

Extraneous noises can be very difficult for a person who has a hearing impairment. Noise from radios, office equipment, traffic and employee conversations make it difficult for someone who is hard of hearing to focus on important sounds in their environment.

To block extraneous noise, use sound absorbing products such as carpeting, ceiling baffles, wall panels or cubicles. Discontinue the use of personal stereos or provide the employee with a space free from extraneous sounds from copy machines, faxes or printers.

Communicating with Workers in the Field

It is not uncommon for people to have to work from a location away from the main work site. Communicating with a worker in the field who is deaf or hard of hearing is often an issue of concern. In situations where two way radios and CBs are normally used, a problem may arise. In order to reduce distance communication barriers, it may be necessary to consider other means of communicating. Cellular phones may be used in place of CBs and can be used with a portable TTY for people who are deaf, or with an amplification device for people who are hard of hearing. Some two way radios might actually work with a portable TTY if the device has a separate transmitter and receiver so that the two way radio can be hooked up acoustically with a TTY. Another option might be the use of a vibrating pager system. Many pagers operate over telephone lines while others are standalone units with a more limited range. Pagers can provide a full length message and may allow the individual to respond directly using the pager through the use of programmed messages.

Responding to Vehicles in the Workplace

Employers often express concerns about people who are deaf or hard of hearing working around or driving forklifts or other heavy equipment. Past studies have shown that workers with hearing loss are at no greater risk for injury than workers with average hearing. However, in response to concerns, certain suggestions can be made. Set paths of travel should be established for forklifts, vehicles and heavy equipment. These paths might be marked off on the ground using tape or paint. Establish a rule that all forklifts and vehicles must stop at intersections. Place flashing lights and mirrors on vehicles to enhance the worker's visual cues of the environment. Mirrors might also be placed around the work environment. The individual with hearing loss may be willing to wear a hard hat or vest of a unique color to serve as a warning regarding his/her hearing limitation.

Some concerns involve the issue of wearing hearing protection in the workplace around heavy equipment. Employers become concerned that a person who is hard of hearing will not be able to hear coworkers speaking to them. Some workers might benefit from wearing electronic hearing protection, which allows the frequency range of the human voice (800 to 4000Hz) to be heard but filters out unwanted noise. Certain sounds can also be amplified with an adjustable volume control if desired.

Accessing Information from Videotape

If training videos are used for employment purposes, it may be necessary to caption the videos. Closed or open captioning displays printed text of the auditory information. Closed captioning requires the use of a decoder to view the captions, while open captioning displays the text automatically. The captions are just like captions displayed at the bottom of a screen in foreign language films. No special equipment is required to view open captioning. Videos can be captioned in house if the proper equipment is purchased, or the videos can be sent out to a captioning service for a fee.

Transcribing Information from Audiotape

Accommodation options for transcribing taped material are limited. A Pressure Zone Microphone (PZM) attached to the recording device can be used to increase the quality of tape so a transcriber with hearing loss can be better able to understand the recorded information. Such a microphone can be obtained from a local Radio Shack. Direct audio input devices, in line amplifiers or amplified headsets may also be helpful for the transcriber. Some individuals have success with using the T coil in their hearing aid in conjunction with wearing the existing headset just in front of the ear.
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