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Health hazard evaluation report: exposures of helicopter pilots and gunners to firearm noise and lead during gunnery target training exercises.

Brueck SE; Aristeguieta C; Ramsey J
Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, HETA 2009-0216-3201, 2014 Mar; :1-27
The Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) Program received a technical assistance request from managers in the flight safety office of a federal agency. Managers were concerned about helicopter crews' exposures to gunshot noise, vibration, and lead during airborne offshore and ground range gunnery training exercises. The helicopter crews (50 pilots and 25 gunners) assisted in the interception and disabling of drug- and contraband-running watercraft. They flew MH-65C "Dolphin" helicopters. In response to this request, NIOSH investigators measured pilots' and gunners' exposures to noise from shooting weapons and from helicopter flights during gunnery target training. We measured exposures to lead from shooting lead-containing ammunition and took surface wipe samples for lead inside helicopter cabins. We also spoke with pilots and gunners about the health symptoms they had while training and during actual missions. We found that helicopter pilots and gunners were exposed to high noise levels during gunnery target training; peak noise levels (exceeding 150 decibels) during weapons shooting were high enough to damage hearing. In our review of audiometric test results, we found that some pilots and gunners had evidence of threshold shifts using NIOSH criteria, but did not have standard threshold shifts using OSHA criteria. Helicopter pilots reported headache and fatigue from gun blast, especially after flights for gunnery target training. Airborne lead exposures were below occupational exposure limits, but surface lead was found inside helicopter cabins. To address the potential for noise exposure among helicopter crews, NIOSH investigators recommended the employer (1) install a partial noise barrier in the helicopters between the pilots and gunner, (2) install a window in the helicopter cabin that can be opened to reduce blast pressure when high caliber weapons are shot, (3) continue to require double hearing protection for everyone in the helicopter cabin when they shoot weapons and during gunnery target training flights, and (4) test employee hearing and report results using NIOSH and OSHA criteria. To address the potential for lead exposure among helicopter crews, we recommended the employer (1) consider using non-lead bullets and non-lead primers as they become economically feasible, (2) clean the inside of the helicopter cabins to help remove surface lead accumulation, and (3) advise helicopter crews to maintain good hand hygiene and thoroughly wash their hands after handling guns or bullets that contain lead and after gunnery target training exercises.
Region-4; Noise; Noise-exposure; Noise-induced-hearing-loss; Noise-levels; Noise-sources; Noise-control; Impact-noise; Lead-dust; Law-enforcement; Hearing-conservation; Hearing-impairment; Hearing-loss; Hearing-protection; Personal-protective-equipment; Protective-equipment; Aircrews; Aircraft; Author Keywords: National Security; lead; noise; impulse noise; impulsive noise; hearing loss; overpressure; blast pressure; firearms; rifle; helicopter
Publication Date
Document Type
Field Studies; Hazard Evaluation and Technical Assistance
Fiscal Year
NTIS Accession No.
NTIS Price
Identifying No.
HETA-2009-0216-3201; M042014
NIOSH Division
Priority Area
SIC Code
Source Name
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Page last reviewed: May 11, 2023
Content source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Education and Information Division