In this article
You have probably been to a concert at some point in your life. As the music started, you likely struggled to talk to the person next to you and a day or two after, you may have experienced ringing in your ears or muffled hearing. These effects are caused by exposure to high noise levels and are usually temporary. However, if this kept on happening, these effects on your hearing could become permanent and irreversible.
Noise is any audible sound heard by the human ear. It used to be defined as any unwanted sound. However, noise doesn’t necessarily have to be a nuisance or unwelcome. As previously mentioned, a concert, which most people would find a pleasure, can harm a person’s hearing if they are regularly exposed to such high noise levels.
People can also be exposed to hazardous noise whilst they are at work. There is a risk of damage to their hearing if noise hazards are not assessed, controlled and managed properly. Whilst there may not be specific legislation setting noise limits for audience exposure at a concert, there is when it comes to all employees at work.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):
- Hearing loss caused by noise exposure in the workplace continues to be a significant occupational disease.
- There are approximately 2 million people in Great Britain exposed to unacceptable levels of noise at work.
- An estimated 17,000 people in the UK suffer from deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions because of exposure to excessive noise at work (2017/18 to 2019/20).
- There were 95 new cases of occupational deafness in 2019.
- There were 1,125 new cases of occupational deafness from 2010 to 2019 (1,120 men and five women).
- Noise-induced hearing loss is the second most common reason for employers’ liability insurance claims for occupational health.
These statistics highlight that men are at a higher risk of hearing loss at work than women. Can you think of why this is the case?
The industry groups with the highest average annual incidence rates of new occupational deafness cases were extraction, energy and water supply, manufacturing and construction. These industries tend to have more male workers than females. Hence the reason why cases of occupational deafness are higher in men than women.
This article will look at noise hazards in the workplace, employer and employee duties, and some example control measures to reduce the risk.
Noise is a physical hazard, which can cause harm to employees’ hearing. How hazardous noise is will depend on the noise dose, which is the level of noise (measured in units known as decibels (dB)) and duration that someone is exposed. The higher the number of decibels, the louder the noise.
Hazardous noise levels can result in:
- Noise-induced hearing loss – can be temporary due to a short exposure to loud noise. However, when it is chronic, it is permanent, as the hearing has been damaged. Deafness and profound hearing loss are classed as disabilities.
- Threshold shift – when someone is exposed to loud noise, it can reduce their hearing acuity and affects their ability to hear certain sounds and frequencies. If a person continues to be exposed to hazardous noise levels, it can become permanent.
- Tinnitus – this causes ringing, whistling, humming and buzzing in the ears. It can be very unpleasant. Once it becomes permanent, there is no cure.
- Burst eardrum – if the noise is so loud, like an explosion, it can permanently damage the ear and result in instant hearing loss.
Noise can also cause other health and safety issues, such as:
- Distraction and disturbance, which can increase the likelihood of accidents and injuries.
- Interference with communication between employees and others.
- Stress and irritability, if workers find it difficult to concentrate whilst carrying out their tasks.
- Workers not hearing hazard warnings and safety alarms, e.g. forklift truck reversing alarms and fire alarms.
The risk of hearing damage increases with higher noise levels and repeated exposure.
Signs and symptoms of hearing loss
Once the damage to a person’s hearing becomes permanent, there is no going back.
Some of the early signs and symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss include:
- Signs of permanent tinnitus.
- Family commenting that they are talking louder or turning the volume up on the television or radio.
- Difficulty having conversations with people, especially when using the phone.
- Confusing words and having difficulty hearing the letters t, d and s.
How do employees know if they are at risk?
The HSE gives examples that can be used as a simple guide to determine whether employees are at risk from noise in the workplace. There may be a noise problem at work if one or more of the following applies:
- The noise is intrusive for most of the working day, e.g. similar to a busy street or restaurant.
- Workers approximately two metres apart have to raise their voices to converse normally for at least part of the day.
- Workers are using noisy power tools or machinery for more than half an hour each day.
- Workers are working in a noisy industry, e.g. construction, engineering, foundries, woodworking, demolition and roadworks.
- Workers are working in noisy environments, such as refrigeration plant rooms.
- There are impact noises in the workplace, such as banging, hammering and crashing.
- A worker has muffled hearing at the end of their working day, even if it is better in the morning.
An employer has a legal duty to address noise if any of the above apply to their workplace. The above can be used as a guide, but it is no substitute for reliable noise measurements to determine the noise risk in the workplace.
In some cases, employees do not appreciate the risk that hazardous noise levels pose, as the damage is done over a period of time. They may not even realise their hearing is being damaged until they start to experience the signs and symptoms of hearing loss. By then, it is usually too late.
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 places a duty on employers to protect employees from the risks of exposure to noise at work.
- Assess the risk of exposure to noise at work. Noise measurements are often taken as part of a survey to estimate likely exposures. The HSE’s exposure calculators and ready-reckoners can also help employers with their estimates.
- Take certain actions when noise levels reach or exceed the exposure action values.
- Ensure they do not expose their employees to noise levels above exposure limits.
- Eliminate or adequately control the risks from exposure to noise, including monitoring noise levels.
- Provide hearing protection where they cannot reduce the risk by other means.
- Maintain noise control equipment and hearing protection.
- Provide employees with information, instruction and training.
- Provide health surveillance to employees, e.g. hearing checks, to those at risk of noise exposure.
The Regulations specify the noise levels where actions are required to reduce the risk and the levels where employees should not be exposed.
The values for daily or weekly exposure are as follows:
|Daily/weekly exposure||Peak sound pressure|
|Lower Exposure Action Values||80dB(A)
|Upper Exposure Action Values||85dB(A)
|Exposure Limit Values||87dB(A)
To put it into perspective, the general operation of forklift trucks can be over 85dB and reversing alarms can be over 90dB.
The actions that employers have to take at or above certain noise levels are as follows:
If daily noise levels are at or above the lower exposure action value, employers must:
- Provide information, instruction and training on noise risks and ways to minimise them.
- Provide hearing protection to those who request it. However, employers are not required to enforce its use.
- Provide health surveillance to those who are more vulnerable to noise exposure, e.g. workers with existing hearing problems.
If daily noise levels are at or above the upper exposure action value, additional measures are required (in addition to the above actions), and employers must:
- Reduce exposure to as low a level as possible by organisational and technical measures, e.g. noise enclosures.
- Not rely on hearing protection as a control measure.
- Establish hearing protection zones in high-risk areas and identify them with signage.
- Supply hearing protection and enforce in hearing protection zones.
- Provide health surveillance for all employees exposed.
If daily noise levels are above the exposure limit, employers must:
- Not expose employees at or above the exposure limit value.
- Follow the precautions above.
- Provide hearing protection of the correct SNR value to reduce noise levels to the ear.
- Investigate if employees are exposed to noise levels above the exposure limit and implement measures to prevent it from happening again.
Employees also have legal duties under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005.
Use any noise control measures, including hearing protection, that has been provided by their employer.
- Employees must cooperate with their employer by following procedures and safe systems of work.
- They should use any noise control measures, e.g. noise enclosures, properly.
- If hearing protection is provided, employees should:
– Wear it properly in accordance with their training.
– Wear it at all times in noisy areas and where there is a hearing protection zone.
– Be trained on where to obtain it, how to use it and how to look after it.
Report any defects in noise control measures and hearing protection to their employer as soon as possible.
- Defective equipment will not protect an employee’s hearing and must be reported immediately.
- If an employee suspects they have any issues with their hearing because of their work, they should inform their employer.
Ensure they are available during their working hours for health surveillance where required.
- Employees should attend hearing checks where necessary.
Employees need to take some responsibility when it comes to protecting their hearing. After all, they will have to live with the consequences if they do not. Permanent hearing loss and tinnitus can be disabling, negatively impact a person’s life and affect their mental health and wellbeing.
The HSE has a flow chart for managing noise risks that further details employer and employee actions.
Various control measures can reduce the risk of noise exposure.
Some examples include:
- Eliminating noise
– Removing the risk of noise, which is the best option.
– Looking at whether the work needs to be done or another process can be used, e.g. welding or glueing instead of riveting.
- Reducing and controlling the noise levels at the source:
– Controlling noise at the machine and equipment itself or relocating it away from workers.
– Using quieter equipment where possible. Equipment that is older and requires more maintenance is likely to be noisier than new equipment.
– Implementing a purchasing policy where equipment with lower noise levels is purchased.
– Changing a noisy process to a quieter process, e.g. replacing diesel engines with quieter motors.
– Maintaining equipment properly and regularly to reduce noise levels. Poorly maintained equipment will usually be noisier.
- Reducing noise through engineering controls, administrative controls and attenuation:
– Enclosing the process or equipment that emits noise.
– Erecting screens or acoustic barriers to absorb some of the noise, so levels are reduced.
– Keeping noisy machinery and processes away from workers.
– Using damping materials and mounting on machinery to reduce vibration and noise.
– Fitting silencers to equipment, e.g. on noisy engines.
– Having soundproof rooms where workers can work away from the noise.
– Reducing the number of workers and the time they spend in noisy areas.
– Making workers aware of the hazards by procedures, safe systems of work, training or signage.
- Reducing noise through PPE:
– Using hearing protection, such as ear defenders and earplugs.
Hearing protection, like other PPE, should be seen as the last option. It can be used in conjunction with other precautions, but it should not be the first choice in risk control because:
- It only protects the user, and employers should be looking at solutions that protect the whole workforce from noise risks.
- It can be the wrong rating and ineffective in controlling the risk.
- It can be damaged, worn out and interfered with.
- It may not be worn or maybe worn incorrectly.
- It may not fit properly or may be incompatible with other types of PPE, e.g. safety helmets.
Employers should be looking at controlling the noise at the source or reducing it before considering hearing protection. Hearing protection is required when they have done everything reasonably practicable to reduce the risk, but the noise levels are still above the exposure action values.
There are two main types of hearing protection, which are:
Ear defenders (also known as earmuffs)
- Attached to a headband and fits over the ears.
- They can be clipped to safety helmets.
- More comfortable to wear.
- Issued personally and need to be maintained and replaced when worn/damaged.
- Fit inside the ear.
- Made of absorbent material.
- They can be reusable or disposable.
- There are different types, and a selection must be given to employees, as people’s ears are different.
- They can be specially made for an individual, but there is a cost.
- There are also semi-inserts/canal caps held in or across the ear canal by a band.
Hearing protection has a rating value, called the single number rating (SNR). This value is the level of protection provided by ear defenders and earplugs, which reduces the level of noise (attenuation) to the ear. The higher the SNR value, the higher the attenuation. Care must be taken not to overprotect when selecting hearing protection, as this can result in employees not hearing other hazards, e.g. vehicles and warning systems.
Different types of hearing protection have different SNR values. The higher the SNR value, the higher the attenuation. For example, ear defenders with an SNR value of 25 would reduce the noise levels by 25 decibels at the ear. Therefore, 100dB-25dB = 75dB at the ear. Employers should take into account the SNR value when choosing hearing protection.
Employers must ensure that employees wear hearing protection if noise levels are above the exposure action values. Employees also have a legal duty to wear it. They do not always comply and so should be monitored.
Increasing compliance in wearing hearing protection can be achieved by:
- Involving employees in the selection of hearing protection.
- Including hearing protection in company policy and having procedures in place for issuing, maintaining, cleaning, reporting, replacing, inspecting and monitoring.
- Ensuring that leadership and management set a good example and wear hearing protection when required.
- Training employees and providing them with information and instruction on hearing protection and company policy/procedures.
If workers saw a hazard that could result in injury or ill health, most would avoid it, e.g. if something was hot, they would not touch it with their bare hands, as it could cause burns.
As hazardous noise cannot be seen and there are usually no immediate effects from exposure, many employees don’t appreciate the risk. People may think they are in a noisy area for only a few minutes per day, or it is only loud every so often, so they will be ok. Frequent exposure to hazardous noise levels can result in hearing loss and tinnitus.
It is not until the signs and symptoms of hearing problems arise, which can be after a few months and even years, that workers realise there is an issue. There is no turning back the clock and no way of undoing the damage once done.
Hazardous noise in the workplace is a risk that employers have a legal duty to manage. Employees also have responsibilities and must do their part to help their employer and also themselves. It is their hearing that is at stake at the end of the day. Nobody would choose to lose their hearing or have tinnitus, so why take the risk?
Why not enrol on our Noise Awareness Course to learn more about noise as a hazard in the workplace and how it can be effectively controlled and managed.