NIOSH Assesses Noise, Lead Exposures among Helicopter Pilots, Gunners

Published April 23, 2014

NIOSH’s latest health hazard evaluation (HHE) report details the agency’s response to a request for technical assistance from the flight safety office of a federal agency related to concerns about helicopter crews’ exposures to firearm noise and lead during target training. The crews were part of a unit that assisted in the interception and disabling of drug- and contraband-running watercraft.

NIOSH investigators found that pilots and gunners were exposed to excessive noise above NIOSH exposure limits during training—primarily from gunfire—and that noise exposure peaked at levels exceeding 150 dB and TWA exposures above 100 dBA.

The agency recommended several engineering controls to help reduce noise exposures, including installing a noise-dampening bulkhead behind the helicopter pilot seats and installing a small window on the side of the helicopter cabin that can be opened during gunfire to help dissipate cabin pressure. Helicopter crews should also be fitted for and use double hearing protection, NIOSH stated.

While personal air samples for lead did not find exposures over occupational exposure limits, surface wipe samples showed lead dust on surfaces in the helicopter cabins. To help protect employees from lead exposures, NIOSH recommended using non-lead bullets and primers as they become economically feasible and cleaning the inside of helicopter cabins quarterly to remove surface lead accumulation.

For more information, see NIOSH’s full report. Other NIOSH HHE reports are available on the agency’s website.