Exposure to loud noise in the workplace can cause permanent damage to your hearing. It may be temporary but it can often be permanent. It can take the form of hearing loss but can also result in sensations of permanent noise or ringing in the ears, known as ‘tinnitus’, which can prove even more distressing.
Employers have a legal duty to reduce the risk of hearing damage to their employees and there are actions which must be taken if noise exceeds certain defined limits.
What Are Workplace Noise Limits?
Workplace noise limits are based around the concept of ‘Action Levels’ – the level at which action must be taken to reduce the harmful effects to those who would be exposed to the noise.
The first action level is set at 85dB (decibels) averaged over an 8 hour day. At this level, an employer must provide information and training to employees on the health implications associated with noise. They must also make hearing protection equipment available.
The second action level is set at 90dB. Above this level, an employer must do all that is reasonably practicable to reduce noise levels, using whatever control measures are available. Until effective controls can be implemented, use of hearing protection is mandatory. Each affected area must be declared a mandatory noise zone with appropriate Safety Signs put up and there must be regular health surveillance.
To give you an idea:
- A normal conversation can register between 50dB and 60dB
- A busy high street might register between 78dB and 85dB
- A chainsaw can register between 115dB and 120dB
Workplace Noise Risk Assessment
The first step is to carry out a noise Risk Assessment if there is reason to believe that noise may exceed the first action level. A rough indication of when this level has been reached is when people have difficulty conducting a conversation at a range of about 2 metres apart. All findings must be properly documented, including the actual exposure calculations where they exceed the first action level. Then an action plan must be produced and the information made available to those who could be exposed to the risks.
Workplace Noise Protection
Once the noise level exceeds the first action level, an employer must provide hearing protection if an employee requests it. Should the noise exceed the second level, then an employer has to provide hearing protection whether or not it has been requested. They must also do all that is reasonably practical to ensure that employees use it properly and if employees refuse to comply, disciplinary action can be taken.
Various types of hearing protection are available, depending on the environment in which the noise is occurring. However, some basic requirements must be met namely:
- It must be at least effective enough to reduce noise exposure below the second action level
- It must be compatible with any other kind of personal protection which may be in use
- It must be suitable for the circumstances and environment in which it is going to be used
How Dangerous Can Noise be in the Workplace?
Apart from the risk of hearing damage, whether temporary or permanent, there are other risks associated with excess noise in the workplace. It interferes with communication in general and makes it more difficult to hear warning signals and alarms. Noise can also be a distraction, particularly sudden loud sounds which can startle people who are working around potentially dangerous machinery. Moreover, noise is often cited in stress complaints.
Prevention First – Use PPE
It is important to emphasise that Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) should only ever be considered as a last resort. Firstly, employers should seek to eliminate or reduce the intensity of the noise by engineering measures and / or reduce the amount of time that employees are exposed to it. Noise can present a real hazard in the workplace and its effects may take some time to become evident, but when they do, it is often too late to do anything about it.
As an important health and safety issue, noise is a prime example of ‘Prevention being better than Cure’.