Damage to hearing from exposure to loud noise at work is a significant but preventable problem. Approximately 170,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions due to excessive noise at work. The problem occurs in many workplaces, but particularly in the manufacturing and construction industries, as well as entertainment venues, farms, transport operations, mines and quarries.
We advise you to check the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 to see whether they apply to your business, and how far your business already complies. A successful claim for noise induced hearing loss ('NIHL') by one of your employees could cost up to £25,000.
There are a number of requirements if the regulations apply to your business.
Educate employees as to the risks
You must inform workers about the potential risks associated with NIHL and the precautions taken by your organisation to minimise the risk.
Provide hearing protection
All exposed employees must be provided with hearing protection and need to be trained in the correct use and maintenance of this equipment. Their use must be monitored and enforced by the management. Any records relating to disciplinary action and enforcement by management should also be retained in case they may assist in presenting a credible defence to a tribunal application.
Adequate signed records need to be kept clearly indicating the receipt of all information, instruction and training as well as the issue of personal hearing protection.
Hearing protection must be provided not only to all employees whom you assess to be at risk, but also to all employees who ask for it. All aids and appliances must be maintained in efficient working order.
Install noise control measures
The regulations are designed to reduce and prevent noise by introducing acoustic control measures; these can be quite simple and cost effective. They should be installed before considering the issue of hearing protection to employees.
Carry out noise assessments
A noise assessment should be carried out using personal noise measuring equipment by an occupational hygienist or noise specialist. This needs to be done for all employees exposed to noise on a daily basis. Noise surveys need to be repeated when circumstances change or new equipment or processes are introduced.
Test the hearing of new employees
Audiometric screening of new employees is also recommended to establish their hearing level for future reference. This helps to prevent false indications of NIHL and spurious liability claims from being generated.
How much noise is acceptable?
The Regulations specify action values and exposure limit values for daily personal noise exposure (or weekly personal noise exposure) and peak sound level.
Daily personal noise exposure is a measure of the total noise received by an employee over the working day. Daily personal noise exposures depend both on noise levels experienced at work and on the time spent in the noise. A high level noise for a short time will give the same noise exposure as a lower level noise for a longer time, if the total sound energies of the two noises are the same.
For an eight-hour working day, the average noise level over the eight hours is numerically equal to the daily personal noise exposure.
Weekly personal noise exposure is a measure of the total noise received by an employee during a working week. It is similar to the daily noise exposure but is calculated for a 40-hour week (five 8-hour days) instead of an 8-hour day.
Peak sound pressure level is the instantaneous peak sound pressure level occurring at any time during the working day if you fall at or below the lawful noise levels.
Employers must 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 exposure is likely to be exceeded, an employer needs to carry out a risk assessment to assess whether any employees are likely to be exposed to noise which is greater than the daily or weekly limit.
The risk assessment should consider:
- the level, type and duration of exposure, including any exposure to peak sound pressure
- the effects of exposure to noise on employees whose health is at particular risk from such exposure
- any effects on the health and safety resulting from the interaction between noise and the use of ototoxic
- substances at work, or between noise and vibration
- any effects of noise on audible warning signals or other sounds that need to be audible for safety, or in order to reduce risk at work
- any information provided by the manufacturers of work equipment
- the availability of alternative equipment designed to reduce the emission of noise
- any extension of exposure to noise at the workplace beyond normal working hours, including exposure in rest facilities
- appropriate information obtained following health surveillance, including, where possible, published information
- the availability of personal hearing protectors with adequate attenuation characteristics
Where noise exposure exceeds the lawful level, the employer must make suitable hearing protection available to any employee who wants to use it. Employees do not have to wear it.
The employer must also provide information and training on:
- the nature of risks from exposure to noise
- the organisational and technical measures taken in order to reduce noise exposures
- the exposure limits values and upper and lower exposure action values
- the significant findings of the risk assessment
- 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 and its purposes
- safe working practices to minimise exposure to noise
- the collective results of any health surveillance undertaken
If you fall at or above the lawful noise levels
If any employee is likely to be exposed to noise at or above an upper exposure action value, the employer must reduce exposure to as low a level as is reasonably practicable by establishing and implementing a programme of organisational and technical measures (without the use of hearing protectors).
This could be achieved by:
- other working methods which reduce exposure to noise
- providing a choice of appropriate work equipment emitting the least possible noise
- 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
- appropriate work schedules with adequate rest periods
The provision of hearing protectors is a last resort, to be used where the preferred methods of reducing noise exposures are not reasonably practicable. Hearing protection zones must be marked and employees must wear the protection provided when in the zones.
It is likely that the recommendations will be interpreted so that health surveillance including audiometric testing should be provided for employees if daily exposures regularly exceed the upper action values. The health surveillance is likely to be required even if hearing protection is worn, to provide a check on the effectiveness of the protection.
The exposure limit values must never be exceeded. If a limit value is exceeded the employer must identify the reason and take steps to ensure that it cannot happen again.
Changes from previous regulations
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 differs from the Noise at Work Regulations 1989 currently in force in many ways.
The threshold for providing hearing protection and training on noise and hearing is lower, but the threshold for introducing noise control is also reduced.
An exposure limit value for daily noise exposure is introduced. Weekly averaging of noise exposure is permitted when noise exposures vary from day to day.
There is greater emphasis placed on consultation between employers and employees and their representatives.
There is a specific requirement for health surveillance and hearing testing where a risk is identified.
The new regulations will apply in aircraft in flight over Britain.
Closely related to this topic are the Management of Health and Safety at Work (MHSW) Regulations.