The Impact and Control of Noise Hazards at Work
20,000 people working in the UK in the last year have suffered from Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL), caused or made worse by work; according to an estimate from a recent Labour Force Survey. This equates to a rate of 62 cases per 100,000 workers. In 2014, according to the HSA, up to 10,000 Irish workers suffered with a hearing problem due to exposure to noise hazards at work. NIHL is the leading and most known cause of hearing loss as it accounts for one third of all work-related diseases ahead of skin and respiratory problems.
If steps are not taken to reduce the exposure and the levels of noise at work; then hearing loss as a result of occupational exposure to noise hazards, though gradual but can become permanent over time. Excessive exposure to noise can also cause tinnitus – a ringing, hissing or booming sensation in your ears. Hearing loss leads to an increased risk of accidents making it harder for workers to hear and to correctly understand speech and signals. Noise also masks the sound of approaching danger or warning signals. It may also distract workers, which could contribute to work-related stress.
What Can Be Done to Limit exposure and Levels of Noise Hazards at Work?
Firstly, you can monitor the daily exposure of noise to your workers. If noise levels are above 80 dB, the lower exposure action value (as per the SHW at Work (General App) Regulations 2007, Part 5 Physical Agents, Chapter 1 – Control of Noise at Work and Amendment Regulations 2007 in Ireland or the Control of Noise at Work Regulations in the UK), employers must reduce noise exposure and make an audio-metric screening test available. If levels are above 85 dB, the upper exposure action value, then employers must design and implement a programme to reduce noise exposure. Mandatory warning signs have to be displayed. Employers have to make hearing protectors available and ensure that they are worn. Employers are required to make a hearing check, including an audio-metric test available to all employees.
Noise has to be measured repeatedly at appropriate intervals, especially when there are any significant changes in work patterns or equipment. When noise exceeds the lower exposure levels of 80 dB, employers must inform employees of the:
- Results of the risk assessments
- Measures taken to reduce exposure
- Correct use of hearing protectors
- Results of the audiometry tests
A rule of thumb: noise is at 80 dB if people have to raise their voices to be heard at a distance of 1 metre. Noise levels are about 90 dB if people have to shout to be heard at a distance of 1 metre.
Employers looking to reduce occupational noise exposure and noise hazards should consider some of the following:
- Choice of work equipment
- Design and layout of work equipment and workstations
- Proper use of work equipment
- Reducing airborne noise by shields, enclosures and sound-absorbent coverings
- Reducing structure-borne noise by damping or isolation
- Maintaining work equipment
- Organisation of work to limit duration and intensity of exposure
- Adequate rest periods
The Recommended Steps for Reducing Noise at Work Include:
Employers can also provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to their employees. However, PPE, such as earplugs and earmuffs, have to be used as a last resort after all efforts to eliminate or reduce the source of noise have been exhausted. Issues to consider when using PPE include:
- Making sure the PPE chosen is appropriate for the type and duration of the noise; it should also be compatible with other protective equipment
- Employees should have a choice of suitable hearing protection so they can select the most comfortable solution
- The PPE has to be correctly stored and maintained
- Provide training on why the PPE is necessary, when it should be used, how it should be worn and how to store and maintain it properly and safely
- Employees should report any defects in PPE without delay
When providing PPE, employers have to look at providing the following types of equipment: full acoustic helmets, earmuffs that can be fitted to industrial helmets and/or ear protection with intercom equipment.
Monitoring legislation governing occupational noise will notify employers of their obligations to safeguard their employees against work-related noise, stress and illnesses. Having a legal register such as Pegasus in place will inform users of the applicable legislation to their operations and what they need to do to comply.