Loud noise at work can damage your hearing. This usually happens gradually and it may only be when the damage caused by noise combines with hearing loss due to ageing that people realise how impaired their hearing has become. Hearing protection should be issued to employees: Where extra protection is needed above what has been achieved using noise control; and for short-term protection, while other methods of controlling noise are being developed. The insidious nature of Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) makes it all the more dangerous.
You should not use hearing protection as an alternative to controlling noise by technical and organisational means. It should only be used when there is no other way of control.
Employees to whom you provide hearing protection should receive training in how to use it. Why should dealing with noise be so important to us all?
Why is dealing with noise important?
It is easy to take our hearing for granted. Our ability to hear clearly, even against background noise, is something we should cherish and protect.
Noise at work can cause hearing damage that is permanent and disabling. This can be gradual, from exposure to noise over time, but damage can also be caused by sudden, extremely loud, noises. The damage is disabling in that it can stop people being able to understand speech, keep up with conversations or use the telephone.
Hearing loss is not the only problem. People may develop tinnitus (ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming in the ears), a distressing condition which can lead to 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 – putting people at risk of injury or death.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) can leave a sufferer having problems in social and family settings.
Do I have a noise problem?
You will probably 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 2 metres 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
Situations where you will need to consider safety issues in relation to noise include 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
How can I control noise?
There are many ways of reducing noise and noise exposure. Nearly all businesses can decide on practical, cost-effective actions to control noise risks, if necessary by looking at the advice available (e.g. HSE’s noise at work website).
First, think about how to remove the source of noise altogether, for example housing a noisy machine where it cannot be heard by workers. If that is not possible, investigate:
- Using quieter equipment or a different, quieter process
- Engineering/technical controls to reduce at 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 (e.g. general suitability, efficiency) when hiring or buying equipment. You should compare the noise data from different machines, as this will help you to buy from among the quieter ones.
Detecting damage to hearing
If the risk assessment indicates that there is a risk to health for employees exposed to noise, they should be placed under suitable health surveillance (regular hearing checks).
There are also many noise measurement devices on the market that can help you put some initial numbers on the problem. This can make it easier to get the attention of other stakeholders.
Hearing loss – what’s it like?
When we have full healthy hearing, it is difficult to imagine impaired hearing. Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is a dangerously insidious form of damage that is permanent. These elements of subtle build up and permanence are a very dangerous mixture which can significantly affect a person’s ability to lead a normal social life.
NIHL is particularly dangerous for a number of reasons:
- Damage is painless when it is happening
- Damage is internal – no external evidence
- Damage progresses slowly over years
- Damage is permanent
The bottom line is that we must all be aware and concerned about noise in the workplace.
More HSE Resources
These pages provide links to sources of guidance and information on the control of noise at work. They also provide links to practical solutions for controlling noise, presentations, research and statistics on noise.
The Law: Background to the Noise Regulations
The 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.
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (the Noise Regulations) came into force for all industry sectors in Great Britain on 6 April 2006 (except for the music and entertainment sectors where they came into force on 6 April 2008).
The aim of the Noise Regulations is to ensure that workers’ hearing is protected from excessive noise at their place of work, which could cause them to lose their hearing and/or to suffer from tinnitus (permanent ringing in the ears).
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 replace the Noise at Work Regulations 1989.
The level at which employers must provide hearing protection and hearing protection zones is now 85 decibels (daily or weekly average exposure) and the level at which employers must assess the risk to workers’ health and provide them with information and training is now 80 decibels. There is also an exposure limit value of 87 decibels, taking account of any reduction in exposure provided by hearing protection, above which workers must not be exposed.
Guidance on the 2005 Regulations can be found in the HSE publications Noise at work: A brief guide to controlling the risks and Controlling Noise at Work.
Both the 1989 and the 2005 sets of noise regulations are based on European Union Directives requiring similar basic laws throughout the Union on protecting workers from the health risks caused by noise. They do not apply to members of the public exposed to noise from their non-work activities, or when they make an informed choice to go to noisy places or from nuisance noise.
The 2005 Noise Regulations replace the 1989 Noise Regulations and introduce new requirements for action to be taken by employers. For example, the 2005 Regulations require employers to take action to protect workers at levels of noise 5 decibels lower than in the 1989 Regulations and now require health surveillance (hearing checks) for workers regularly exposed above 85 decibels.
Many thousands of people are exposed to loud noise at work that may be a risk to their hearing. But compliance with the Noise Regulations will allow workers’ hearing to be protected.
Other articles on hearing and hearing protection
Noise at work – a TUC guide for health and safety representatives
Contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.