In Brief

  • Pulsed radiofrequency radiation is an invisible hazard that may cause exposed workers to hear noises for which there is no visual explanation.

  • This article explores whether this may result in workplace incidents caused by concentration loss.

  • This article discusses the hazard, its risks and risk controls in relation to this phenomenon.

Exposure to radiofrequency (RF) radiation may result in many health effects such as cataracts, headaches, burns and various thermal effects on the body (Boulais, 2014a). Microwave hearing effect is also attributable to RF radiation. With the human body consisting of more than 70% water, RF radiation results in vibration of water molecules within the body, thereby causing injury via a thermal effect. The best way to explain this effect is by comparison to a microwave oven, which quickly heats foods with high moisture content. Heated in a microwave, the filling of a jelly donut can be extremely hot, while the outside is only slightly warm. It all comes down to the higher moisture content of the jelly (Boulais, 2015a).

Pulsed RF radiation from radar installations can cause slight temperature increases in the brain, which can cause a thermoelastic wave in the head that is detected by the cochlea (Chou & Guy, 1982). This can cause the person exposed to perceive phantom sounds, such as chirping, buzzing, hissing, clicking or knocking noises (Lin, 1978). The sounds are perceived, but there is no visual explanation for the noises; this is known as microwave hearing effect (Frey, 1962).

This article aims to address a gap in the literature by determining whether microwave hearing effect may result in distraction during high-risk work at height, which may then result in injury. To achieve this goal, the article addresses several key research objectives:

  • To assess awareness and knowledge of microwave hearing effect within a target population of telecommunications riggers employed by a large telecommunications services company.

  • To determine the proportion of that population that may have experienced the effect and their recollection of knocking, clicking, chirping, buzzing or hissing.

  • To determine to what degree those who have experienced the effect consider it a workplace distraction.

  • To determine whether the matter was reported where experienced and, if not, to determine why it was not reported.

This article starts with a summary of microwave hearing effect, then presents the results of a questionnaire administered to a target population of telecommunications riggers (n = 99). The article then presents analysis of the results to address the research objectives and draws viable conclusions.

A note about rigger competency: Throughout Australia, respective safety regulators issue high-risk work licenses to riggers; their level of competency is defined as basic, intermediate or advanced. The study presented consists of 100% male riggers; based on experience, this is reflective of the current telecommunications rigger population in Australia.

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