Noise: advice for employers
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.
This guidance will help you understand what you may need to do as an employer to protect your employees from noise, particularly if your business involves using:
- noisy powered tools or machinery
- explosive sources such as cartridge operated tools or detonators, or guns
- noise from impacts such as hammering, drop forging, pneumatic impact tools
Why dealing with noise is important
Noise at work can cause temporary or permanent hearing damage that is disabling. This can be:
- gradual, from exposure to noise over time
- caused by sudden, extremely loud noises
People often experience temporary deafness after leaving a noisy place. Although hearing recovers within a few hours, this should not be ignored. It is a sign that if they continue to be exposed to the noise, their hearing could be permanently damaged.
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.
Young people can be damaged as easily as the old.
Identify if you have a noise problem
This will depend on how loud the noise is and how long people are exposed to it. 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, for example:
- road repair
- plastics processing
- textile manufacture
- general fabrication
- forging or stamping
- paper or board making
- canning or bottling
- waste and recycling
- there are noises due to impacts such as:
- drop forging
- pneumatic impact tools
- there are noises from explosive sources such as:
- cartridge-operated tools
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
If your workers use hand-held tools these may also transmit vibration into their hands and arms. Find out about preventing harm from vibration.
How you can control noise
As an employer, you must assess and identify measures to eliminate or reduce risks from exposure to noise so that you can protect the hearing of your employees.
Where the risks are low, the actions you take may be simple and inexpensive, but where the risks are high, you should manage them using a prioritised noise-control action plan.
Where required, ensure that:
- hearing protection is provided and used
- any other controls are properly used
- you provide information, training and health surveillance
Review what you are doing if anything changes that may affect the noise exposures where you work.
How noise is measured
Noise is measured in decibels (dB). An 'A-weighting' sometimes written as 'dB(A)', is used to measure average noise levels, and a 'C-weighting' or 'dB(C)', to measure peak, impact or explosive noises. You might just notice a 3 dB change in noise level, because of the way our ears work. Yet every 3 dB doubles the noise, so what might seem like small differences in the numbers can be quite significant.
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.
A risk assessment revealed that the noise level at the operator's position of a metal cutting guillotine was very high, at 92 decibels (dB).
How was the problem tackled?
After taking technical advice, the employers ensured the guillotine was fully serviced and its hydraulics overhauled. In addition, a collecting tray was fitted with rollers and covered with carpet, to reduce the impact of falling offcut metal.
As a result, the noise level at the operator's position was reduced by 8 dB to 84 dB.
Textile industry worker
A woman working in the textiles industry only realised something needed to be done about her hearing loss when, at the age of 40, she couldn't hear the phone ringing any more.
What should have happened?
Such hearing loss could have been prevented in the short term with hearing protection. In the longer term, other ways of reducing exposure included quieter machines, maintenance, and changing job patterns.