Noise in the workplace

Let's Talk About Noise in The Workplace

Posted By Kerry Budworth on 2015-12-01 22:18

Many employees in the United Kingdom are exposed to noise levels in the workplace that may be harmful to their hearing. Hearing loss caused by workplace noise exposure is preventable, but once hearing is damaged it is not repairable. Some 17,000 people in the UK suffer hearing loss, ringing in the ears or other ear conditions caused by excessive noise exposure in the workplace. It is a costly problem and not just in monetary terms, there is also an underlying human cost to hearing loss.

What do the regulations require you to do as an employer?

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (Noise Regulations 2005) require employers to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety from exposure to noise at work. Employees also have duties under the Regulations. The Regulations require you as an employer to:

  • Assess the risks to your employees from noise at work
  • Take action to reduce the noise exposure that produces those risks
  • Provide your employees with hearing protection if you cannot reduce the noise exposure enough by using other methods
  • Make sure the legal limits on noise exposure are not exceeded
  • Provide your employees with information, instruction and training
  • Carry out health surveillance where there is a risk to health

The Regulations do not apply to:

  • members of the public exposed to noise from their non-work activities, or making an informed choice to go to noisy places;
  • low-level noise that is a nuisance but causes no risk of hearing damage.

Noise levels

Action levels and limit values

The Noise Regulations require employers to take specific action at certain action values. These values relate to a combination of the levels of exposure to noise of your employees averaged over a working day or week and the maximum noise (peak sound pressure) to which employees are exposed in a working day.

Any sound louder than 85dB may damage hearing over a set period of exposure. It is as simple as that, the key is length of time exposed and volume of sound exposed to.

The values are split into lower exposure and upper exposure levels

lower exposure action values:

  • daily or weekly exposure of 80 dB;
  • peak sound pressure of 135 dB;

upper exposure action values:

  • daily or weekly exposure of 85 dB;
  • peak sound pressure of 137 dB.

There are also levels of noise exposure which must not be exceeded. These are called exposure limit values:

  • daily or weekly exposure of 87 dB;
  • peak sound pressure of 140 dB.

Your Strategy

Assessment

You need to assess the risks in your workplace in relation to noise, either make an ambient noise assessment yourself or have an industrial noise service provider do it. Take specific care to assess the noise emitted by machinery both fixed and mobile such as power tools. The noise emitted needs to be assessed from the normal use position. For instance, when power drills are used the tend to be used close to the head or face. 

It is important that the noise emitted is tested within that limit. Noise levels reduce with distance, so in order to get a valid reading you will need to be within the use distance. For general ambient noise in the workplace a constant reading should be taken over the period of a work day or work days. In this way you will ensure that you get a full picture of the noise emitted during a working day. 

Reducing the risks

The onus is on you as an employer to reduce the risk of exposure, it is better to do so as early as possible. By that I mean you should consider noise as an issue when making the decision to buy machinery, plant and hand tools. If possible  buy quieter. You should also consider sound proofing and any other damping means to reduce noise emitted. Because damage is a combination of noise level and exposure time, you should also consider the time spent in certain noise. If for instance your hearing protection is graded to reduce noise in a certain place to 85dB, the time spent there should be no more than eight hours. 

Noise Protection

Again the onus is on you to protect your employees so you should supply noise protection to any worker who may be exposed to noise above the values. The hearing protection needs to be suitable for the job at hand and the level of noise exposed to. Staff need to be trained and educated in the use of the noise protection and the consequences of failing to use it. 

Instant Fit

Many employers supply foam ear protection, this type of ear protection is effective but only if used properly. The foam buds need to be properly inserted deep into the ear canal. This can be a bit fiddly and we have rarely seen this type of protection used properly.  

Custom Fit

Custom fit hearing protection is a better way forward, because they are custom fit to the employee's ears they are comfortable and easy to insert. You can be sure of the consistency of the protection that is being provided by custom fit hearing protection.

What is health surveillance?

Health surveillance is a series of continuous assessments of the health of an employee over the period of employment. Health surveillance for hearing damage usually means:

  • regular hearing tests in controlled conditions
  • telling employees about the results of their hearing checks
  • keeping health records
  • ensuring employees are referred to a doctor where hearing damage is identified

As with much health surveillance it should really start before the employee is exposed to noise (ie for new starters or those changing jobs). This gives a baseline understanding of the person's hearing. It also helps you as an employee protect your self. 

Health surveillance can be introduced at any time for employees already exposed to noise. The initial tests will then form the baseline for hearing. This would be followed by a regular series of hearing tests, usually annually for the first two years of employment. It then moves to three-yearly intervals, this period may need to be reduced though if any problem with hearing is detected or where the risk of hearing damage is high.

The hearing tests need to be carried out by someone who has the appropriate training. You, as the employer, have the responsibility for making sure the health surveillance is carried out properly.

Do I need to provide health surveillance?

The regulations are clear, as an employer you must provide health surveillance for all of your employees who are likely to be regularly exposed above the upper exposure action values, or are at risk for any reason, eg they already suffer from hearing loss or are particularly sensitive to damage for some reason.

The purpose of health surveillance is to:

  • warn you when employees might be suffering from early signs of hearing damage
  • give you an opportunity to do something to prevent the damage getting worse
  • check that your control measures are in fact working 

If you don't already have health surveillance in place, it is important that you consult your trade union safety representative, or employee representative and the employees concerned before introducing it.  It is important that your employees understand that the aim of health surveillance is to protect their hearing. You will need their buy in if your strategy is to be effective.

What should I expect from HealthScreen UK?

As an occupational health service provider  we will be advise you on a suitable programme for your employees. We will also undertake the following;

  • set up the programme
  • provide suitably qualified and experienced staff to carry out the work
  • provide you with reports on your employees' fitness to continue work with noise exposure

We will help you with your legal requirement to assess and identify measures to eliminate or reduce risks from exposure to noise so that you can protect the hearing of your employees and the financial health of your business. 

Where required we can help you to ensure that:

  • Staff are educated on the risks
  • hearing protection is provided and used
  • any other controls are properly used

We can also review your protection mechanisms if anything changes that may affect the noise exposures in your workplace. 

What do I do with the results of health surveillance?

Health surveillance will help you to identify employees who are most at risk and who may already have hearing damage. These records can help you to actively protect your employees' hearing. There is also a legal requirement to keep the records for inspection by the HSE. The requirements of you are:

  • keep records of the health surveillance and fitness-for-work advice provided for each employee however any confidential medical records are kept by the doctor. A health and safety inspector can ask to see the health records as part of their checks that you are complying with the Regulations
  • make employees' records available to them 
  • act upon any recommendations made by the occupational health service provider about employees' continued exposure to noise
  • use the results to review and, if necessary, revise your risk assessment and your plans to control risks

The results of your health surveillance for groups of workers can give you an insight into how well your programme to control noise risks is working. Use the results to target your noise reduction, education and compliance practises more accurately. Make this information available to employee or safety representatives. Health surveillance will not just help you to meet legal requirements but it will allow you to actively protect the hearing health of your staff.

The Key messages For Employers

  • Hearing loss caused by work is preventable but once hearing is damaged it is not repairable.
  • Damage can cause loss of the ability to hear and people may also suffer a permanent sensation of ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus.
  • Hearing loss caused by exposure to noise at work continues to be a significant occupational disease. Some 17,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions as a result of exposure to excessive noise at work.
  • There are many practical, cost-effective ways of protecting yourself and your workers.
  • Factors that contribute to hearing damage are noise levels and how long people are exposed to the noise, daily or over a number of years.
  • The most efficient and effective way of controlling noise is by technical and organisational means that protect workers at source, eg changes in process, reducing vibration (damping) and reducing time spent in noisy areas.
  • Health surveillance or hearing checks are vital to detect and respond to early signs of damage.

You need to ensure that all of your health and safety precautions pertaining to noise in the workplace are continuous. This will help you to keep risks as low as reasonably possible. If you have any questions about health surveillance services, or you are looking for health and safety services in Leicester or across the UK, don't hesitate to call us on 01455 234 600 or contact us online. 

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