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Noise was once the most widespread yet underestimated of workplace hazards and there is a hundred years of evidence that noise can adversely affect workers exposed to it. The HSE estimates that many employees in Great Britain are exposed to levels of noise that put their hearing at risk, and an estimated 18,000 people currently have noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) that was caused or made worse by work, based on data from the latest three LFS surveys (2010/11, 2011/12 and 2013/14), continuing the flat trend over the past decade.
According to the 2014 TUC safety representatives' survey, only nine per cent of safety representatives think that noise is one of the main hazards facing workers, the same as in 2012. Noise is not reported as a top five concern by safety representatives in any sector in 2014. This improvement may be due to better compliance by employers with the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 and by decline in the sectors traditionally associated with the worst noise levels (such as transport, metal processing and catering), and with those with significant levels of noise (such as construction, textile processing, forestry and repetitive assembly). However, the TUC and affiliated unions have been drawing attention to the noise hazards faced by call centre workers, including acoustic shock (see the section on offices for more details), by musicians and pub and club workers from loud music, by teachers and lecturers from poorly designed classrooms and by workers in open-plan offices. Even in an office where noise is well below current legal levels there may be problematic noise, common sources being printers, telephones, photocopiers, ventilation and heating systems.
Some of the sectors where noise is currently a problem are not well organised and may not be represented in the TUC survey.
In most jobs, the degree of risk depends not just on the noise levels but on how long people are exposed to them. The total amount of noise exposure over the whole working day is called the daily personal noise exposure (usually referred to as the LEP,d). There is a risk of hearing damage from exposures above 80 dB(A). As a rule of thumb, if you cannot hear a normal conversation clearly when you are two metres away from the speaker, the noise level is likely to be around 85 dB(A) or higher. If you cannot hear someone clearly when you are about one metre away, the level is likely to be around 90 dB(A) or higher. Note that as the noise scale is logarithmic, every 3 decibels represents a doubling of sound intensity and capacity to damage hearing; that is, a 83 dB sound is twice as intense as an 80 dB sound.
If noise levels need to be measured, it should be done by a competent person.
Effects of noise on health
As well as permanent and temporary hearing loss, noise-related conditions include: tinnitus (ringing in the ears), which can be painful and may lead to sleep disturbance; acoustic trauma; perforated eardrum; and hyperacusis (which can develop after sudden exposure to high sound levels and the sufferer may then find certain sounds uncomfortably or even painfully loud). Exposure to noise has been linked to heart disease and high blood pressure, especially in pregnant workers, and noise may affect the hearing of the unborn child. Noise plus exposure to solvents has a synergistic effect, causing greater noise-induced hearing loss than exposure to noise alone.
Exposure to noise reduces our ability to hear higher frequencies and so interferes in our ability to hear human speech clearly, resulting in noise-induced hearing loss (which differs from age-induced hearing loss). The inability to hear what is being said, to use a telephone or take part in conversation in social situations can lead to social exclusion and additional health risks.
Noise at work can cause other problems such as disturbance, interference with communications, difficulties with concentration, fatigue, tension and irritability – all of which may also cause stress.
An emerging problem is voice loss due to having to speak in noisy environments and may affect, for example, teachers, lecturers and call centre workers.
Anyone who is regularly and frequently exposed to high levels of vibration can suffer permanent injury. The 2014 TUC safety representatives' survey confirms that vibration remains a hazard of concern to only three per cent of safety representatives, but where it is a problem it presents a serious health issue. Vibration hazards at work usually present in one of two forms:
- Whole-body vibration (WBV) – where the body is shaken by a machine or vehicle. WBV is caused by vibration transmitted from machinery or vehicles or sometimes through the floor. The most widely reported WBV injury is back pain. Drivers of some mobile machines, including certain tractors, fork-lift trucks and quarrying or earth-moving machinery, may be exposed to WBV and shocks that are associated with back pain.
- Hand-arm vibration (HAV) – where the vibration effect is localised to a particular part of the body. Exposure to HAV may result in a range of health effects collectively known as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS). Workers may be exposed to HAV when operating hand-held power tools such as road breakers or when holding materials being worked by machines such as pedestal grinders. The most well-known health effect is vibration white finger. Other effects include damage to joints, muscles and tendons, to the vascular or blood circulatory system, and to the sensory nerves in the hands and arms.
A number of laws and regulations apply to noise and vibration. Duties can be found in other chapters of Hazards at Work. The key legal requirements for noise control is the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, and for vibration it is the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005. The Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations 1992 as amended put a duty on manufacturers, and suppliers of machinery are obliged to reduce risks to a minimum and to provide data on noise and vibration and information on risks to health and their control.
The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005 came into force on 6 July 2005. Under agreed transitional arrangements, employers were allowed to continue using equipment and work processes first used before 6 July 2007 that exposed their workers to levels above the exposure limit values, but only until 6 July 2010. For whole-body vibration, employers in agriculture and forestry have until 2014 to comply.
Noise at work in music and entertainment – sound advice
In April 2008 the regulations protecting workers in the music and entertainment sectors from exposure to excessive noise were replaced by the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, which recognised that music is unusual in that it is noise deliberately created for enjoyment, and therefore guidance was necessary to help workers, employers and freelancers in the music and entertainment sectors protect their hearing. Sound Advice is the resulting set of practical guidelines put together by a group that included trade unions and the HSE. It covers the control of noise at work in music and entertainment, including concert halls and theatres, amplified live music venues, pubs/clubs and studios. See also: HSE Sound Advice, Sound Advice: control of noise at work in music and entertainment, HSG260.
There are a number of positive steps that safety representatives can take to raise awareness and tackle problems to do with noise and vibration.
There are a number of positive steps that safety representatives can take to raise awareness and tackle problems to do with noise and vibration, starting with ensuring that their employer has implemented the Vibration and Noise Regulations and consulted safety representatives in the process. Steps should have been taken to implement the standards in the regulations and prevention and control measures should follow best practice:
- design of workplaces and machinery for low noise emission and vibration
- substitution by quieter processes or machines and machinery that vibrates less
- engineering control
- modification of the routes by which noise and vibration reach workplaces and workers
- reduction of exposure times.
Finally, the use of personal protection should be a last resort. For example, the use of ear protection is a last resort to control noise exposure. It should only be considered where noise cannot be eliminated at source or reduced to a minimum.
Safety representatives can identify if there is a problem with noise and vibration by:
- carrying out a survey with workers that may be affected or using body and risk mapping techniques
- doing a special inspection that concentrates on noise and vibration
- doing a special inspection that concentrates on the information provided and the health and safety training of workers who are subject to noise and vibration.
Safety representatives should report their concerns and those of their members to management in writing. Use Chapter 6 of Hazards at Work for ideas on how you can make sure that management gets things done.
Safety representatives should ask for copies of the risk assessments that the employer has done to ensure that they are preventing and controlling hazards from noise and vibration, and make sure that their employer is fully consulting them. Where control measures are in place then safety representatives should check that they are being adhered to and maintained and also that they are effective in preventing injuries and ill health by checking accident and sickness absence records
Safety representatives can also monitor the employer's safety policy and systems of work regarding noise and vibration, and check that:
- there are competent personnel dealing with noise and vibration, and that they obtain expert advice when necessary from the HSE, or reputable consultants
- there is consultation 'in good time' before new work is undertaken in the workplace, about arrangements for the appointment of competent people, and training and information arrangements
- where there is any potential risk, their employer has given all their workforce appropriate training and information.
(in alphabetical order)
Excellent news and resources from Hazards magazine.
- There is also a vibration exposure calculator.
- Hand-arm vibration.
- Whole-body vibration.
- L141Guidance on the Regulations.
- HAV advice for employers (PDF)
- HAV advice for employees (PDF)
- Mobile machine operators/bad backs (PDF)
Action on Hearing Loss (RNID)
Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) is a charity representing deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK. News and resources.
Essential information for safety representatives. Keep up to date on health and safety by registering to receive Risks, the TUC's weekly e-bulletin for safety representatives.
Trade union information
- Some unions provide guidance on Noise. The website addresses of all trade unions are in Britain's unions.
- Contact your union, or visit your union's website to find out what guidance is available.
Issued: 5 April, 2013