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Basic facts about noise and vibration
Noise is probably the most widespread and underestimated of workplace hazards. There is a hundred years of knowledge that workplace noise can cause permanent deafness, temporary hearing loss and associated conditions such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears). The HSE estimates that over one million employees in Great Britain are exposed to levels of noise which put their hearing at risk. According to the 2010 TUC safety representatives survey, only 10 per cent of safety representatives think that noise is one of the main hazards facing workers. In manufacturing in 2008, noise was identified as the main hazard with 45 per cent of representatives identifying it; this year it fell to 35 per cent of safety reps identifying noise, compared to 47 per cent identifying slips, trips and falls as the top hazard. This improvement may be due to better compliance with the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 by employers.
Traditionally, the worst noise levels have been in transport, metal processing and catering, with significant levels of noise in 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 from acoustic shock , and pub and club workers from deafening music.
Noise at work can cause other problems, such as disturbance and interference with communications, as well as stress, involving difficulties with concentration, fatigue, tension and irritability. For example, noise in offices may often be well below current legal levels. However, there are common sources of noise that cause problems for office workers such as computers, printers, open-plan offices, telephones, photocopiers, ventilation and heating systems.
Frequency (or 'pitch') and intensity ('loudness') are important factors in understanding noise hazards. Frequency is the pitch of the sound. It describes the rate of fluctuation of air particles produced by a noise source. The measurement unit is cycles per second, which are called hertz (Hz). Intensity of sound provides a measure of the amount of energy that vibrating air particles deliver to the ears.
A cycle is a wavelength: the more cycles/wavelengths per second, the higher the frequency or pitch of the sound. High frequency, high pitched sounds have a short wavelength and so there are many more waves, or cycles per second. Low frequency, low pitched sounds have long wavelengths so fewer waves or cycles per second.
Human beings can hear frequencies from 20Hz to 20,000Hz. Below 20Hz sound is felt as vibration rather than heard and above 20,000Hz some young people are able to sense it.
The amount of sound energy can vary enormously. Painful sound is about 10 million-million times as intense as the quietest sound that can be heard. Since a scale of this magnitude would be impossible to handle, a logarithmic scale is used for measuring sound intensity, in units called decibels (dB). When noise is measured at work, emphasis is normally given to the frequencies that have most effect on the human ear. This is done by adjusting the noise meter to take more notice of these frequencies. The scale used is called a 'weighted decibel scale' or dB(A). According to the HSE, some examples of typical noise levels are:
- normal conversation 50–60 dB(A)
- a loud radio 65–75 dB(A)
- a heavy lorry about 7 metres away 95–100 dB(A)
- a jet aircraft taking off 25 metres away 140 dB(A).
Since the scale is logarithmic, a small increase in the decibel scale corresponds to a large increase in intensity. This is very important in understanding the significance of noise measurements. For example:
- if the sound level increases by 10 dB then the sound intensity, that is, the amount of sound energy being transmitted to the ear, increases tenfold
- an increase of 3 dB corresponds to a doubling of intensity. 83 dB is not just over 80 dB but is in fact twice as intense and is capable of producing correspondingly more damage to hearing.
In most jobs, the 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 shortened to LEP,d). If noise levels need to be measured, a competent person should measure them. 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.
Effects of noise on health
As well as noise-induced hearing loss noise can have other serious health effects, such as stress, inability to concentrate, tension and irritability. Other noise- related conditions include tinnitus, 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 uncomfortable and painfully loud when others do not). 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. 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.
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. An emerging problem is voice loss due to having to speak a lot in noisy environments, and may affect, for example, teachers, lecturers and call centre workers. For more information see www.hazards.org/voiceloss/voicelessons.htm
Anyone who is regularly and frequently exposed to high levels of vibration can suffer permanent injury. The 2010 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 themselves in two forms:
- Whole body vibration (WBV) – where the body is shaken by a machine or vehicle. WBV is caused by vibration transmitted from machinery, 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 which are associated with back pain.
- Hand-arm vibration (HAV) – where the vibration effect is localised to a particular part of the body. Exposure to hand-arm vibration may result in a range of health effects collectively known as Hand- Arm Vibration Syndrome or 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, but 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.
Legal and other standards for prevention and control
A considerable number of laws and regulations of general application apply to noise and vibration. Duties can be found in the following chapters of Hazards at Work:
- SRSC Regulations 1977 – Chapter 2, with reference to safety representatives' rights and consultation
- Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 – Chapter 12, dealing with the general duties of employers and employees under Sections 2–9. Generally, the employer has a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees
- Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – Chapter 13, with the obligations placed upon employers to make suitable and sufficient assessments of risks to their employees. They must also make arrangements for the health and safety of employees by effective planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review
- Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (as amended) – Chapter 45
- Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 – Chapter 50, where employers must notify their enforcing authority in the event of an accident at work to any employee resulting in death, major injury or incapacity for normal work for three or more days
- Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations 1992 (as amended), where manufacturers and suppliers of machinery are obliged to reduce risks to a minimum, to provide data on noise and vibration, and information on risks to health and their control.
The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005
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.
The Regulations apply to both hand-arm vibration (HAV) and whole-body vibration (WBV). They make provision for the following:
Exposure limit values and action values (Regulation 4)
For HAV, the exposure values are:
- exposure action value: 2.5 m/s2 A(8)
- exposure limit value: 5.0 m/s2 A(8)
(m/s2 = metres per second squared; A(8) = the daily exposure to vibration of a person)
Daily exposure should be ascertained on the basis set out in Schedule 1 (Part 1) to the Regulations
For WBV the exposure values are:
- exposure action value: 0.5 m/s2 A(8)
- exposure limit value: 1.15 m/s2 A(8)
(m/s2 = metres per second squared; A(8) = the daily exposure to vibration of a person).
Daily exposure should be ascertained on the basis set out in Schedule 2 (Part 1) to the Regulations
Assessment of the risk (Regulation 5)
An employer who carries out work which is liable to expose any of their employees to risk from vibration shall make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk created by that work to the health and safety of those employees and the risk assessment shall identify the measures that need to be taken to meet the requirements of these Regulations.
Elimination or control of exposure to vibration at the workplace (Regulation 6)
Regulation 6 provides for the following:
- elimination or, where elimination is not reasonably practicable, reduction of exposure to vibration to as low a level as is reasonably practicable (Regulation 6(1))
- where elimination is not reasonably practicable and an exposure action value is likely to be reached or exceeded (see Regulation 4 above), reduction of exposure to as low a level as is reasonably practicable by a programme of organisational and technical measures (Regulation 6(2))
- measures to be based upon the general principles of prevention, to include consideration of (Regulation 6(3)) – other working methods which eliminate or reduce exposure to vibration, choice of work equipment of appropriate ergonomic design which, taking account of the work to be done, produces the least possible vibration; the provision of auxiliary equipment which reduces the risk of injuries caused by vibration; appropriate maintenance programmes for work equipment, the workplace and workplace systems; the design and layout of workplaces, work stations and rest facilities; suitable and sufficient information and training for employees, such that work equipment may be used correctly and safely, in order to minimise their exposure to vibration; limitation of the duration and magnitude of exposure to vibration; appropriate work schedules with adequate rest periods; and the provision of clothing to protect employees from cold and damp
- ensuring that employees are not exposed to vibration above an exposure limit (Regulation 6(4) (a)). However, there are transitional periods for the commencement of the operation of regulation 6(4) concerning limit values (Regulations 3(2) and 3(3))
- averaging of exposure to vibration in specified circumstances (Regulation 6(5)).
Health surveillance (Regulation 7)
If the risk assessment indicates that there is a risk to the health of employees who are, or are liable to be, exposed to vibration; or employees are likely to be exposed to vibration at or above an exposure action value, the employer shall ensure that such employees are placed under suitable health surveillance.
Information, instruction and training (Regulation 8)
If the risk assessment indicates that there is a risk to the health of employees who are, or who are liable to be, exposed to vibration; or employees are likely to be exposed to vibration at or above an exposure action value, the employer shall provide those employees and their representatives with suitable and sufficient information, instruction and training.
Noise at Work Regulations 2005
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 came into force on 6 April 2006. These Regulations were extended to cover music and entertainment in 2008. The main provisions of the Regulations are outlined below.
Exposure limit values and action values (Regulation 4)
- The lower exposure action values are:
(a) a daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 80 dB (A-weighted) and
(b) a peak sound pressure of 135 dB (C-weighted)
- The upper exposure action values are:
(a) a daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 85 dB (A-weighted) and
(b) a peak sound pressure of 137 dB (C-weighted)
- The exposure limit values are:
(a) a daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 87 dB (A-weighted) and
(b) a peak sound pressure of 140 dB (C-weighted).
Assessment of risk created by noise exposure at the workplace (Regulation 5)
An employer who carries out work which is liable to expose any employees to noise at or above a lower exposure action value (see above – 80dBA) shall make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk from that noise to the health and safety of those employees, and the risk assessment shall identify the measures which need to be taken to meet the requirements of these Regulations.
The risk assessment shall be reviewed regularly and straight away if:
- there is reason to suspect that the risk assessment is no longer valid; or
- there has been a significant change in the work to which the assessment relates, and where, as a result of the review, changes to the risk assessment are required, those changes shall be made.
The employees concerned or their representatives shall be consulted on the assessment of risk under the provisions of this regulation.
The employer shall record:
- the significant findings of the risk assessment as soon as is practicable after the risk assessment is made or changed; and
- the measures which she/he has taken and which s/he intends to take to meet the requirements of regulations 6, 7 and 10.
Elimination or control of exposure to noise at the workplace (Regulation 6)
The employer shall ensure that risk from the exposure of his employees to noise is either eliminated at source or, where this is not reasonably practicable, reduced to as low a level as is reasonably practicable. If any employee is likely to be exposed to noise at or above an upper exposure action value (see above – 85dBA), the employer shall reduce exposure to as low a level as is reasonably practicable by establishing and implementing a programme of organisational and technical measures, excluding the provision of personal hearing protectors, which is appropriate to the activity.
Actions taken shall be based on the general principles of prevention set out in Schedule 1 to the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999 and shall include consideration of:
- other working methods which reduce exposure to noise
- choice of appropriate work equipment emitting the least possible noise, taking account of the work to be done
- the design and layout of workplaces, work stations and rest facilities
- suitable and sufficient information and training for employees, such that work equipment may be used correctly, in order to minimise their exposure to noise
- reduction of noise by technical means
- appropriate maintenance programmes for work equipment, the workplace and workplace systems
- limitation of the duration and intensity of exposure to noise; and
- appropriate work schedules with adequate rest periods.
The employer shall (a) ensure that his employees are not exposed to noise above an exposure limit value; or (b) if an exposure limit value is exceeded forthwith –
- reduce exposure to noise to below the exposure limit value
- identify the reason for that exposure limit value being exceeded and
- modify the organisational and technical measures taken to prevent it being exceeded again.
The employees concerned or their representatives shall be consulted on the measures to be taken to meet the requirements of this regulation.
Hearing Protection (Regulation 7)
An employer who carries out work which is likely to expose any employees to noise at or above a lower exposure action value (see above – 80dBA), shall make personal hearing protectors available upon request to any employee who is so exposed.
If an employer is unable by other means to reduce the levels of noise to which an employee is likely to be exposed to below an upper exposure action value (see above – 85dBA), s/he shall provide personal hearing protectors to any employee who is so exposed.
If in any area of the workplace under the control of the employer an employee is likely to be exposed to noise at or above an upper exposure action value for any reason the employer shall ensure that:
- the area is designated a Hearing Protection Zone
- the area is demarcated and identified by means of the sign indicating that ear protection must be worn
- access to the area is restricted where this is practicable and the risk from exposure justifies it and shall ensure so far as is reasonably practicable that no employee enters that area unless that employee is wearing personal hearing protectors.
Any personal hearing protectors made available or provided under the requirements above shall be selected by the employer:
- so as to eliminate the risk to hearing or to reduce the risk to as low a level as is reasonably practicable and
- after consultation with the employees concerned or their representatives.
Maintenance and use of equipment (Regulation 8)
The employer shall:
- ensure so far as is practicable that anything provided by her/him is fully and properly used and
- ensure that anything provided by her/him is maintained in an efficient state, in efficient working order and in good repair
Every employee shall:
- make full and proper use of personal hearing protectors and of any other control measures and
- if s/he discovers any defect in any personal hearing protectors or other control measures, report it to his employer as soon as is practicable.
Health Surveillance (Regulation 9)
If the risk assessment indicates that there is a risk to the health of her/his employees who are, or are liable to be, exposed to noise, the employer shall ensure that such employees are placed under suitable health surveillance, which shall include testing of their hearing.
The employer shall:
- keep and maintain a health record
- on reasonable notice being given, allow an employee access to his personal health record and
- provide the enforcing authority with copies of such health records as it may require.
Where, as a result of health surveillance, an employee is found to have identifiable hearing damage the employer shall ensure that the employee is examined by a doctor and, if the doctor or any specialist to whom the doctor considers it necessary to refer the employee considers that the damage is likely to be the result of exposure to noise, the employer shall:
- ensure that a suitably qualified person informs the employee accordingly
- review the risk assessment
- review any measure taken to comply with regulations 6, 7 and 8
- consider assigning the employee to alternative work where there is no risk from further exposure to noise
- ensure continued health surveillance and provide for a review of the health of any other employee who has been similarly exposed.
Information, instruction and training (Regulation 10)
Where her/his employees are exposed to noise which is likely to be at or above a lower exposure action value, the employer shall provide those employees and their representatives with suitable and sufficient information, instruction and training.
The information, instruction and training shall include:
- the nature of risks from exposure to noise
- the organisational and technical measures
- the exposure limit values and upper and lower exposure action values
- the significant findings of the risk assessment, including any measurements taken, with an explanation of those findings
- the availability and provision of personal hearing protectors and their correct use
- why and how to detect and report signs of hearing damage
- the entitlement to health surveillance under regulation 9 and its purposes
- safe working practices to minimise exposure to noise and
- the collective results of any health surveillance. Guidance for employers on the Regulations (PDF)
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. For other industries, these regulations have been in force since April 2006. The European Directive (2003/10/EC) on which the regulations are based allowed the music and entertainment sectors a two-year transitional period. This recognised that music is unusual as it is noise deliberately created for enjoyment and therefore practical guidelines were 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
The advice was put together by a working party that included representatives of the music and entertainment industries, TUC-affiliate trade unions Equity and the Musicians Union, the General Federation of Trade Unions, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authority Environmental Health Officers. It contains practical guidelines on the control of noise at work in music and entertainment, including concert halls and theatres, amplified live music venues, pubs/clubs and studios.
The aim of Sound Advice is to help control or reduce exposure to noise at work without stopping people from enjoying music, and offers advice to employers, freelancers and employees. It provides advice targeted at specific sectors of the industry with recommendations appropriate to each one. There is also a book version of the guidance, Sound advice: Control of noise at work in music and entertainment, HSG260.
Sound Advice takes account of the duration of workers' exposure to noise, and not simply the noise level. It sets out a range of simple and cost effective actions that can reduce workers' average daily or weekly exposure to noise. Regular, long-term exposure to noise can lead to permanent, incurable hearing damage.
Sound Advice does not provide guidance on the law, which can be found in Controlling noise at work: The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 L108 available from HSE Books. Useful general guidance on noise and HSE free leaflets are available from the HSE website.
What can safety representatives do?
There are a number of positive steps that safety representatives can take to raise awareness and tackle problems to do with noise and vibration.
Employer action on new laws
Safety representatives need to ensure that their employer has implemented the new Vibration and Noise Regulations and consulted safety representatives in the process. Steps should have been taken to implement the improved standards in the Regulations. 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.
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. Risk assessments must take account of the provisions of the new Regulations on noise and vibration. 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.
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)
News, resources and registered consultancies.
Hazards magazine factsheets
- No. 61: Body Mapping
- No. 56: Ergonomics: Making the Job Fit
- No. 48: Vibration
£3.75 each for union subscribers; £7.00 for non- subscribers.
Excellent news and resources on the Hazards web resource page.
HSE noise website
The HSE has a specific web page which draws together HSE information on noise in one place.
There is also a noise exposure calculator.
HSE priced and free publications on noise
- All the latest documents containing general standards and guidance on noise.
- The HSE has now made about 250 of its priced publications freely available on their website. This is a valuable resource, as many of the most important HSG and Legal series are now available, and we recommend that safety representatives download all those that are appropriate for their workplace. All documents currently available.
- The HSE no longer produces a paper version of their publications catalogue, but you can download an electronic version (PDF). If the HSE document you want is not freely available from the online source, many of the priced publications can still be ordered from HSE Books by telephoning 01787 881165.
- For all the latest documents containing general standards and guidance on vibration, go to the HSE web pages: Hand-arm vibration – Further Information and Whole body vibration publications
- L141Guidance on the Regulations
- HAV advice for employers (PDF)
- HAV advice for employees (PDF)
- Mobile machine operators/bad backs (PDF)
HSE vibration website
- The HSE has a specific web page which draws together HSE information on vibration in one place.
- There is also a vibration exposure calculator.
RNID is a charity representing deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK. News and resources.
- The TUC noise and vibration web page
- Noise at Work factsheet
- Noise at Work guide (PDF)
- Essential information for safety representatives: Keep up to date on health and safety by reading Risks, the TUC's weekly e-bulletin for safety representatives. Register to receive Risks weekly.
Trade union information
- Many trade unions provide guidance on noise and vibration. Website addresses of all trade unions.
- Hazards magazine has listed the health and safety pages of most trade unions.
- Contact your union, or visit your union's website to find out if it produces any guidance on noise and vibration. The CWU website leads to a number of links on noise and related issues:
- Musicians Union
Issued: 5 April, 2013