Noise at Work and Work Induced Hearing Loss
Today’s working environments vary greatly, from modern offices to noisy factory floors. If your workplace is an office, a shop or a restaurant rather than a factory or a construction site you probably won’t have thought much about noise levels. However, there are regulations in place applying to what are legally deemed acceptable and unacceptable noise levels at work. It’s best to familiarise yourself with these parameters as you may find they affect you or your business now or in the future. Here are a few guidelines to help clarify employers’ and employees’ responsibilities.
New regulations came into effect for all sectors of UK industry in April 2006, apart from the music and entertainment sectors, where they were applied in April 2008. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 are intended to protect hearing and prevent hearing loss or impairment, including tinnitus, sometimes described as ‘ringing in the ears.’ Noise is measured in decibels and the current level of exposure at which employers must provide protection is 85 decibels, averaged per day or per week. At the lower limit of 80 decibels, employers must provide workers with information and training about noise levels and details of how to protect themselves from over exposure.
Is hearing loss through work a genuine problem?
You might think only a small number of people are affected by hearing loss because of their work environment in the UK but the statistics tell another story. For example, about 17,000 people in the UK experience deafness or tinnitus due to noise in their workplace. Thankfully, over time, reported incidents of hearing loss have reduced, from 74,000 people employed in the UK in 2004/5 to around 21,000 people employed in the12 months to 2007/8. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the industries where hearing loss was most prevalent included construction, manufacturing, water supply and energy extraction.
Noticing a problem with noise
As you become familiar with a work environment, you may find you become accustomed to a certain level of background noise. In some ways it’s a bit like living next to a busy road – eventually the traffic noise may melt into the background. However, this doesn’t mean it isn’t having an impact on your hearing. You need to be aware of how intrusive noise can be in your workplace and over what period of time it can have a major impact. For example, if you have to raise your voice often to have a normal conversation or you need to use a noisy power tool for more than half an hour at a time you could be damaging your hearing.
Early signs of hearing problems – employee responsibilities
If you leave work at the end of the day and your hearing is muffled you should take action, even if you find that your hearing has improved by the start of the next day. There are other symptoms to look out for as well:
- If you experience difficulty having a normal conversation, or this becomes impossible in your workplace, you need to alert your employer.
- If at home, after work, you find it difficult to make a telephone call or find you have to turn up the TV to hear it properly – maybe enough for your family to complain – you need to take action.
- If words become confusing because you can’t distinguish between consonants such as ‘d’, ‘s’ and ‘t’ then your hearing is becoming impaired.
- Remember also that tinnitus can consist of buzzing, humming or whistling in the ears and is not confined to a ‘ringing’ sound.
All employers have a duty to assess any risks to the hearing of their employees in the workplace as a protective measure. Sometimes this risk level will be relatively low, in which case there is little to be put in place and not much cost involved. Where risk levels are moderate or high, attention must be paid to preventative measures and to hearing protection. In fact, as an employer you may need a ‘noise control action plan’ to help you ensure the safety of your workers. This is something you can build into your business plan and review annually.
To conduct a thorough risk assessment of noise levels in the workplace you will need to check the following:
- Where there might be a risk from noise and which employees it might affect.
- How employee exposure compares to the guidelines issued alongside the regulations.
- If you might need to provide hearing protection in certain circumstances in order to comply with the law.
You need to ensure your risk assessment is competent and you may want to employ a qualified consultant to ensure that is the case.
Types of hearing protection
There is a wide range of effective hearing protection available for workers operating in noisy environments, however, if you can reduce noise by using technical or operational means you should do this first. Make sure you regularly supervise employees who require hearing protection to ensure they use the equipment you have issued when needed. Training and information is important in this respect, as is proper use and maintenance of hearing protection equipment. When choosing protective equipment, pay particular attention to:
- Comfort and fit for each employee.
- How ear protection works when your employees are also using other protective clothing.
- The enforcement of regular cleaning and hygiene practices.
Finally, ensure your workplace policies include the appointment of someone to oversee hearing protection and its implementation. Carry out spot checks so that the policies are seen to be taken seriously and be aware of any modifications that lessen the protection provided. As a manager or supervisor visiting areas where hearing protection is required make sure you comply fully with the regulations and set a good example to your employees.