Construction physical ill health risks: Noise
Many construction tasks, tools and equipment can produce high noise levels. Frequent exposure to these levels causes hearing problems. This page tells you how to control these risks and why. More detailed information is available on the main HSE noise page.
What you must do
Identify and assess: Construction sites have a range of different noisy activities going on, often at the same time. Consider:
- Who – who is at risk? Workers are at higher risk if they regularly use or work near to power tools like concrete breakers, pokers and compactors, sanders, grinders, disc cutters, hammer drills, chipping hammers, cartridge-operated tools, scabblers and needle guns. Anyone who operates or works close to heavy plant / machines is also at risk. Give particular consideration to anyone who is known to have an existing hearing problem (eg through health surveillance).
- What – estimate or assess likely exposures from the tasks you are doing. This does not need to be complex, particularly for small sites. As a simple guide you will probably have to do something about noise if workers:
- have to raise their voices when talking while about 2 metres apart for at least part of the working day
- use noisy powered tools or machinery for more than half an hour each day
- are exposed to noise from regular impacts, such as pneumatic drills, or explosive sources like cartridge-operated tools. These noises can be particularly harmful especially when on top of constant background noise levels.
- Where – consider where the work is taking place. Enclosed spaces can reflect noise back, increasing exposure levels.
You need to be able to properly assess or estimate noise levels for larger / more dynamic sites so that you can put in place appropriate controls.
You should only have to take simple and inexpensive actions if the risks are low. For higher risks, you will have to do much more to protect workers. Give priority to the greatest risks first.
Prevent: Where possible think about eliminating or reducing the amount of noise you make. Consider:
- eliminating unnecessary noisy tasks at the design stage
- using an alternative process that does not generate as much noise. For example:
- block splitters instead of cut-off saws
- bursting or crushing instead of pneumatic drilling
- boring instead of pile driving
- limiting vehicle reversing on site (reversing alarms add to the total noise on a site)
- isolating workers from noisy tasks by keeping doors and windows of vehicle cabins closed or using remote controlled equipment
- shutting down equipment, like vehicles, when they are not needed / in use
Control: Even if you stop some of the risk this way, you may still do other work that can create significant noise. Control the risk by:
- Equipment – don't buy or hire a problem if you don't have to. Select low-noise tools and equipment. Existing equipment can also be modified to reduce the noise it makes; eg fitting mufflers to intakes, silencers on exhausts and sound panels on engines.
- Work practices – the right equipment still has to be used correctly; eg make sure doors and windows of vehicle cabins are closed or the correct techniques used when dismantling formwork.
- Sound barriers – stop noise escaping by using temporary shields / sound barriers. Use existing objects such as trailers or cabins to stop noise travelling. Common construction materials (eg plywood) or sound absorbing material can be used to make temporary barriers or enclosures.
- Noise exclusion zones – keep people away by limiting access to noisy areas;
- Distance – noise levels drop significantly with distance. Position stationary noise sources as far as possible from workers. Locate walkways away from noisy tasks.
- Rotate workers – limit the time workers are exposed to noise. 'Weekly averaging' may be used to ensure exposures are managed. Include 'quiet days' when scheduling work.
- Hearing protection – provide workers with hearing protection, but remember – it is not an alternative to eliminating and reducing noise at source. You should not rely on hearing protection as the only control. It can easily fail or be misused. Also, be careful of overprotection. Workers need to hear what is happening around them on construction sites to avoid accidents and to talk to each other.
Train: Tell workers about the risks to their hearing from loud noise and how to use the controls properly
- Supervise: Ensure that controls, such as work methods or hearing protection, are effective and properly used.
- Maintain: Effective maintenance can make big differences to noise levels. Loose and worn parts of tools and plant vibrate creating noise. Make sure devices like silencers, mufflers or covers are in place and working correctly.
- Monitor: Appropriate health surveillance – ie hearing checks – is needed if your workers are frequently exposed above the upper noise action value or they are at risk for any reason, eg they already suffer from hearing loss. If these checks find a problem, you need to:
- review the effectiveness of your current noise controls and improve these where appropriate
- take action to prevent further harm to the person concerned
What you should know
Noise is not just a nuisance; it can seriously damage your hearing. Some people can also suffer a sensation of ringing in the ears (tinnitus) which can become permanent. Explore the audio and visual demonstrations which show how hearing can be affected over a working life. Once your hearing has gone, it will not come back. There is no cure. Hearing aids cannot fully compensate for this loss of natural hearing.
Hearing damage can have a profound effect on your quality of life. It affects your ability to communicate, particularly in situations where there is background noise. Such background noise is common in many work and social situations. The results can lead to a sense of isolation. It may also increase the chance of you being involved in an accident because it affects your ability to hear what is going on around you.