Loud noise at work has the potential to damage your hearing. This normally happens gradually and it may only be when the damage caused by noise combines with hearing loss due to aging that people realise how impaired their hearing has become.
Dangers of excessive noise at work – case study 1
A risk assessment discovered that the noise level at the operator’s position of a metal cutting guillotine was very high, at 92 decibels (dB).
How was the problem tackled?
After taking technical advice, the employers ensured the guillotine was fully serviced and its hydraulics overhauled. In addition, a collecting tray was fitted with rollers and covered with carpet, to reduce the impact of falling offcut metal.
As a result, the noise level at the operator’s position was reduced by 8 dB to 84 dB.
Why is dealing with noise important?
Noise at work has the potential to cause hearing damage that is permanent and disabling. This can be gradual, from exposure over time, but damage can also be caused by sudden, extremely loud, noises. The damage is disabling and can lead to people not being able to understand speech, keep up with conversations or use the telephone.
Hearing loss is not the only issue here, people may develop tinnitus (ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming in the ears), a distressing condition which also causes disturbed sleep.
Noise at work can interfere with communications and make warnings harder to hear. It can also reduce a person’s awareness of his or her surroundings. These factors can lead to safety risks – meaning people could be at risk of injury or death.
Do I have a noise problem?
You will need to do something about the noise if any of the following apply:
- The noise is intrusive-like a busy street, a vacuum cleaner or a crowded restaurant, or worse than intrusive, for most of the working day.
- Your employees have to raise their voices to have a normal conversation when about two meters apart for at least part of the day your employees use noisy powered tools or machinery for more than half an hour a day.
- Your sector is one known to have noisy tasks, eg construction, demolition or road repair, woodworking, plastics processing, engineering, textile manufacture, general fabrication, forging or stamping, paper or board making, canning or bottling, foundries, waste and recycling.
- There are noises due to impacts (such as hammering, drop forging, pneumatic impact tools etc), explosive sources such as cartridge-operated tools or detonators, or guns.
You will need to consider safety issues in relation to noise in situations where:
- You use warning sounds to avoid or alert to dangerous situations.
- Working practices rely on verbal communications.
- There is work around mobile machinery or traffic.
Dangers of excessive noise at work – case study 2
A woman in the textiles industry only realised something needed to be done about her hearing loss when, at the age of 40, she couldn’t hear the phone ringing anymore.
What should have happened?
Such hearing loss could have been prevented in the short term with hearing protection. In the longer term, other ways of reducing exposure included quieter machines, maintenance, and changing job patterns.
How can I control the problem?
There are many ways of reducing noise and exposure. Nearly all businesses can decide on practical, cost-effective actions to control risks, if necessary by looking at the advice available (e.g. HSE’s guidance on noise at work).
First, think about how to eliminate the source altogether, for example housing a noisy machine where it cannot be heard by workers. If that is not possible, investigate:
- Quieter equipment or a different, quieter process.
- Engineering/technical controls to reduce at the source the noise produced by a machine or process.
- Using screens, barriers, enclosures and absorbent materials to reduce the noise on its path to the people exposed.
- Designing and laying out of the workplace to create quiet workstations.
- Limiting the time people spend in noisy areas.
- Choosing quieter equipment and machinery.
You should consider noise alongside other factors (eg general suitability, efficiency) when hiring or buying equipment. Data should be compared to different machines, as this will help you to buy from among the quieter ones.
When should personal hearing protection be used?
Hearing protection should be issued to employees:
- Where extra protection is needed above what has been achieved using noise control.
- For short-term protection, while other methods of controlling noise are being developed.
You should not use hearing protection as an alternative to controlling the problem by technical and organisational means.
Employees to whom you provide hearing protection should receive training in how to use it.
Detecting damage to hearing
If the risk assessment indicates that there is a risk to health for employees exposed, they should be placed under adequate health surveillance (regular hearing checks).
Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 require employers to take action to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety from noise at work.