Why is noise a problem in construction work?

The construction industry is a high risk industry for noise related ill health. Many construction processes are noisy. If you have to raise your voice to have a normal conversation when standing about 2 metres apart, for at least part of the day, then noise levels on the site may be at a level which could damage health. There could also be a problem if there are sudden extremely loud noises on the site, such as from cartridge operated tools, or if at the end of the day you notice that your hearing is muffled or your ears are ringing.

Quality of life can be badly affected by noise induced hearing loss. For example, affected people may find that:

  • conversation becomes difficult or impossible
  • they have trouble using the telephone
  • they find it difficult to catch sounds like 't', 'd' and 's', and so confuse similar words
  • they may suffer from permanent tinnitus (ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming in the ears) which can be a distressing condition and can lead to other problems, including depression and loss of sleep
  • their family complains about the television being too loud

What is the best way to reduce noise on a construction site?

Eliminating noisy processes or substituting them for a less noisy process are the best ways of dealing with noise on a construction site. If this is not possible removing people from the noisy area and choosing quieter equipment can also be effective. As a last resort, hearing protection and hearing protection zones may be appropriate.

Here are some examples of how you can reduce noise:

  • Eliminate noise during design. For example, design ducts into a structure rather than chasing channels in walls.
  • Substitute a less noisy process. For example, use a hydraulic block splitter rather than a cut-off saw to cut blocks.
  • Remove people from the vicinity of noisy work. For example, use a machine mounted breaker on an excavator with a good quality cab and exclude other people from the area while the breaker is in use.
  • Select quiet equipment. For example, compare noise levels from power tools when buying or hiring equipment. Use information from the manufacturer or supplier, and choose the quietest tools that are effective for the job. You can also reduce noise when selecting other types of tool. For example, choose plastic or rubber hammers, rather than metal, to free collars on falsework legs.

Can I rely on hearing protection when carrying out noisy work?

No. It is not acceptable to rely on hearing protection alone to control exposure to noise. Hearing protection should only be used when extra protection is needed above what has been achieved using noise control techniques such as elimination of noisy tasks, substituting quieter processes, removing people from noisy areas and selection of quiet equipment.

If, after taking these measures, hearing protection is still required:

  • make sure the protectors provided give enough protection - aim at least to get below 85 dB at the ear, but don't provide excessive protection as protectors which cut out too much noise can cause isolation or lead to an unwillingness to wear them
  • target the use of protectors to the noisy tasks and jobs in a working day
  • select protectors which are suitable for the working environment - consider how comfortable and hygienic they are
  • think about how they will be worn with other protective equipment (eg hard hats, dust masks and eye protection)
  • provide a range of protectors so that employees can choose ones which suit them
  • make sure workers are trained in how and when to use the hearing protectors.

Is it necessary to measure noise levels at a construction site?

In many cases a risk assessment for noise at a construction site can be prepared without using equipment to measure the noise levels. The assessment must be based on reliable information though and should include a realistic estimate of the employee's exposure.

You may find it useful to observe work activities, measure the exposure time over part of the day and use this to estimate exposure during a full shift. If an employee is exposed to noise from more than one tool or work process during a typical day, you will need to collect information about the likely noise level(s) and exposure time for each source.

Information from manufacturers or suppliers about noise levels produced by the equipment can be used to calculate the daily exposure unless there is reason to believe it is not valid, for example if the tool is being used in a way not specified by the manufacturer or supplier, or in other circumstances where the noise exposure may be increased.

Where can I get more information about noise?

If you would like further information about noise related topics including:

  • how to carry out a noise assessment
  • what the law says about noise and noise levels
  • the noise exposure calculator
  • typical noise levels for common construction activities
  • more about noise control and hearing protection
  • health surveillance

try these links:

Trade associations and other industry bodies can also be a good source of information about how to control noise in your work.

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