How can working in a noisy environment affect workers?
Every day we are exposed to noise in the environment (e.g. traffic, radio, television) and, in most instances, this noise is at a safe level and does not affect our hearing. However, working regularly or for prolonged periods in an environment that is excessively noisy can cause damage to the sensitive structures in the ear, which can lead to noise-induced hearing loss and other conditions affecting the ear (e.g. tinnitus). Approximately 17,000 people in the UK suffer with deafness or other ear conditions related to noise.
Noise levels may pose a potential risk where employees are exposed to high levels of impact noise on a daily basis or where noisy equipment or machinery is used. However, hearing loss is easily preventable either by reducing the noise level or, if this is not possible, providing hearing protection.
Employees should be considered at risk of noise-induced hearing loss when exposed to noise levels as described below, so compliance with the advice is essential. Although special equipment is required to measure noise, it is important to ask for noise levels to be checked if you feel that the noise may be too loud or if you and someone else have to raise your voices to hear normal conversations when standing within two metres of each other:
- The lower exposure action value is a daily or weekly average noise exposure level of 80 dB (A), or peak sound pressure of 135 dB at which the employer has to provide information and training and make hearing protection available.
- The upper exposure action value is set at a daily or weekly average noise exposure of 85 dB (A), or peak sound pressure of 137 dB above which the employer is required to take reasonably practicable measures to reduce noise exposure, such as engineering controls or other technical measures. The use of hearing protection is also mandatory if the noise cannot be controlled by these measures, or while these measures are being planned or carried out.
- The exposure limit value of 87 dB (A), above which no worker can be exposed (taking hearing protection into account).
Employees should comply with the requirement to wear hearing protection (ensuring that it is cared for and maintained as instructed) and should attend any hearing assessments.
Employees who are experiencing difficulties with their hearing should inform their manager and their health and safety representative at the earliest opportunity.
What are employers' responsibilities?
Hearing loss is easily preventable. Under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, employers are required to determine whether employees are exposed to levels of noise at work that could be considered harmful to health. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website provides comprehensive tools and advice to assist managers.
Where noise at work is an issue, employers are required to:
- Assess the risk. This assessment must be undertaken by a suitably-trained and competent person either from within the organisation or through an external consultant or occupational hygienist. The assessment and action plan must identify the level of noise to which employees are exposed. Warning notices should be displayed in areas identified above the first action level.
- Take action to reduce the noise levels (where possible). This could be achieved by:
- enclosing noise sources;
- the use of noise-reducing materials;
- regular and effective maintenance of tools or equipment.
- Where noise reduction cannot be achieved, employers are required to provide appropriate hearing protection which should be regularly maintained and/or replaced. Where noise exposure is above the lower action value level but below the upper action value level, hearing protection must be provided to any employee, if requested. Where an employee's noise exposure is above the upper action value level, hearing protection is considered mandatory and the use of it should be enforced by management.
- Provide information and training including information on:
- exposure to noise and the potential effects on hearing;
- the use of personal protective equipment.
- health surveillance programmes, where appropriate.
- Where appropriate, a programme of health surveillance should be arranged for employees exposed to noise at work. This should be undertaken at pre-placement and then at intervals as recommended by the service undertaking hearing assessments.
What help is available for employees?
The HSE website provides a range of information on how to prevent exposure to noise at work.
The TUC also has a number of resources on its website. You should also contact your union or health and safety representative for advice if you have any issues relating to noise at work.
The Health for Work Adviceline can offer guidance to employers, health and safety representatives and employees on health surveillance, which should be undertaken in organisations where employees are likely to be exposed to noise in excess of the second action level. Guidance can also be given on how noise at work can affect employees as well as information about sourcing an occupational health service specialising in hearing assessments.
For more information about noise at work, or for guidance on employee health issues, contact the free Health for Work Adviceline on 0800 077 88 44.
Further sources of information
Issued: 20 March, 2013