Managing Noise Risks in the Workplace

Peter Dumigan, managing director of the Hultafors Group UK, owners of Snickers Workwear, EMMA and Solid Gear Safety Footwear as well as Hellberg Safety PPE. He writes:

The HSE estimates that 170,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions as a result of exposure to excessive noise at work. With over 1 million employees in the UK exposed to levels of noise which put their hearing at risk, employers are bound by law – the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 – to ensure a duty of care to protect employees from noise.

It’s caused by excessive force being placed on the hearing organs by the rippling effect – the energy – of soundwaves reverberating through the air. The louder the sound is, the greater the energy and force of impact that physically injures the ear.

The most obvious symptoms of a damaged ear drum are an incessant ringing, Tinnitus, or a muffled sound. Whatever the potential effect, all employers are legally bound to ensure low-noise environments in the workplace and PPE to mitigate the effects of noise hazards.

Impairment or a reduction in hearing caused by noise in a working environment is often referred to as occupational deafness and is recognised in law as a serious hazard to employee health and wellbeing. Unlike the immediate effect of body injuries, hearing loss can take years to manifest itself, but the problems can be permanent.

Noise is a serious workplace hazard and we must therefore treat it in the same way as any other and carry out risk assessments and apply control processes for the benefit and wellbeing of the workforce. Whilst personal protection is a critical part of all of this, it cannot be the first action that employers and employees take.

Regulatory Protection

UK law requires employers to:

  • Carry out a risk assessment
  • take action to reduce the exposure to noise hazards
  • provide employees and others in the workplace with personal hearing protection.
  • ensure the legal limits on noise exposure are not exceeded
  • maintain and ensure the effective use of equipment provided to control noise risks
  • provide employees with information, instruction and training
  • carry out health surveillance (monitor workers’ hearing ability)

The noise threshold for providing hearing protection is a daily exposure of 85 decibels. More importantly, the level at which employers must assess the risk to workers’ health and provide them with risk information and training is now 80 decibels.

As an employer, you have to provide your employees with properly maintained hearing protectors if they ask for them and if their noise exposure is between the lower and upper exposure thresholds. You also have to make sure they use them properly and establish hearing protection zones where the use of hearing protection is compulsory.

Don’t Take Hearing For Granted

Too often we take our health and wellbeing for granted and probably never stop to consider what fantastic sensory organs our ears actually are. As well as helping us communicate, our hearing helps to keep us safe. It is the link to our surroundings and is vital for how we interact with others – think how you’d cope in a potentially hazardous situation if you couldn’t hear an alarm bell, a car horn or someone calling to you. We rely on our hearing in so many ways, which is why we should protect it.

Our hearing isn’t designed for many of the sounds we are exposed to today especially the unwanted sounds – those that can potentially damage your hearing. Importantly, if you need to raise your voice or scream to be heard when standing about metre from someone on site – then its more than likely that the noise around you is dangerous!

Definition of Noise

 ‘Noise’ is usually described as sounds we experience as unpleasant or disturbing. Noise can also lead to stress, discomfort and pain. While many of us take it for granted, harmful noise is everywhere. In and out of work – traffic, loud music through your earphones, even strimming, mowing the lawn. Machine tools and plant all make noise, so does the process of using tools and applying fixings. It’s constant, almost incessant. – it can all damage your hearing.

Noise can be continuous, intermittent, impulsive or variable depending on how the noise changes over time or how a person moves in a noisy environment.

Continuous Noise

Steady continuous noise does not vary over time. In the industrial environment, the sound of a rotating electric motor (a fan, pump etc.) can be classified as steady continuous noise. Fluctuating continuous noise change level or/and frequency over time. Most manufacturing noise is fluctuating.

Intermittent Noise

Noise is intermittent if it stops and starts at intervals. One example of intermittent noise is a compressor.

Impulse Noise

Impulse noise is characterized as a short pulse (<1sec) with very fast rise time and a level of at least 20dB above the continuous noise level.

Impulse noises are very dangerous to hearing. The brain needs at least 0,3 sec to identify a sound at the right level. The hearing organ reacts a lot faster. We do not realize that these noises are harmful to our hearing and we often disregard the need for protection. Examples of sound sources giving impulse noise are gunfire and hammer blows.

Control and Mitigate the Risks

The HSE recommends that wherever and whenever there is a noisy working environment, employers should consider alternative processes, equipment or working methods which could make them quieter or take action to ensure that employees are exposed for shorter times.

It’s therefore helpful to keep abreast of good practice in the workplace and the standards for noise-control within your industry. For instance, information can be obtained from the HSE and potentially through trade associations, machinery or equipment suppliers.

Any action you take should be ‘reasonably practicable’ – in proportion to the level of risk. If exposure is below lower action values, the risk is low and it is likely no action is required – but if there are simple, inexpensive practical steps that would reduce risks further, you should consider implementing them.

The HSE’s Advice for managing noise risks

Assessing the risks

  • Identify noise hazards 
  • Identify workers at particular risk from exposure to noise 
  • Estimate likely exposure to noise 
  • Identify measures required to eliminate or reduce risks 
  • Make a record of action taken and planned

Eliminating or controlling noise risks

  • Eliminate or reduce risks using good practice and known control and management solutions
  • Obtain quieter tools and machinery
  • For the higher-risk areas, plan and put in place technical and organisational control measures
  • Make sure the legal limits on noise exposure are not exceeded

Hearing protection

  • Where there remains a risk, issue your employees with hearing protection
  • Make use mandatory for the high-risk cases and manage use with hearing protection zones
  • Remember – hearing protection is not an alternative to noise control
  • Employees: use hearing protection where its use is mandatory

Maintaining and use noise-control equipment

  • Maintain any noise-control equipment and hearing protection
  • Ensure that anything supplied is fully and properly used
  • Employees: use the controls provided and report any defects

Health surveillance

  • Provide health surveillance (including hearing checks) for those at risk
  • Use the results to review controls and further protect individuals
  • Employees: co-operate and attend hearing checks

Worker information and training (Reg 10)

  • Give employees information, instruction and training on: 
    • the risks and safe working practices
    • control measures, hearing protection and health surveillance
  • Encourage workers to take part in consultations in assessments

Carry out reviews

  • Monitor the workplace for changes that affect noise exposures
  • Monitor grouped health surveillance results to identify where controls are failing
  • Look out for new ways to reduce risks

Choosing The Right Hearing Protection

Always use hearing protection when exposed to harmful noise and if necessary, choose a protector adapted to your work environment, ie a product with ‘level dependent hearing protection’.

Hellberg Safety recommends that the calculated level under the hearing protector should be around 75 decibels given that its real-life (attenuation) performance may be affected because of incorrect fitting, misuse and poor maintenance. Performance protection can even be affected by anything that impairs the hearing protectors seal, such as long hair, facial hair and glasses!

Finally, here’s some useful tips. Choose hearing protection that fits correctly and is comfortable the entire time you are exposed to noise at work and even if you’re mowing the lawn or strimming.

Make sure you’ve got 100% wear time in noisy environments and remember, the use of eyewear can reduce the hearing protector’s attenuation of between 3-8 decibels, so if possible, select thin eyewear frames.

Finally, your health and wellbeing on site is just as important as getting a job done quickly, efficiently and in comfort. So choose your PPE products carefully and with that in mind check out the Hellberg Safety website where you’ll find all the information you need on choosing precisely the right kind of passive or active hearing protection whatever you’re doing or wherever you’re working on site.