Noise at Work - FAQs
Some frequently asked questions on Noise at work
How do workers become deaf? How long does it take? What are the effects?
Deafness is caused by damage to the structures within the cochlea (For an explanation of the ear see RNID information and resources – behind the scenes). This damage results in loss of both frequency sensitivity and increase in hearing threshold i.e. noises need to be louder to be able to hear them.
Sometimes after being subjected to loud noises people experience deafness that goes away after a while. This is called temporary threshold shift. But after sudden, extremely loud explosive noises, or more usually prolonged lower level exposures to noise over a number of years, permanent hearing loss can occur. It may be that the damage caused is only noticeable when it becomes severe enough to interfere with daily life. This incurable hearing loss may mean that the individual's family complains about the television being too loud, the individual cannot keep up with conversations in a group, or they have trouble using the telephone. Eventually everything becomes muffled and people find it difficult to catch sounds like 't', 'd' and 's', so they confuse similar words. Social situations can become very difficult.
Age and general fitness are no protection from hearing loss - young people can be damaged as easily as the old. Someone in their mid-twenties can have the hearing that would be expected in a 65 year old. Once ears have been damaged by noise there is no cure.
Hearing loss is not the only problem. Tinnitus or ringing in the ears may be caused as well. Most people suffer temporary tinnitus from time to time, often after a spell in a noisy place, but with noise-damaged ears it can become permanent. Some people find it more distressing than the hearing loss.
Are there any methods of treatment for hearing related conditions ie tinnitus?
Permanent hearing damage, which can be caused immediately by sudden, extremely loud, explosive noises, or gradually due to prolonged exposure noise, is thought to be incurable.
Tinnitus (ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming in the ears) is another possible problem arising from excessive exposure to noise. This distressing condition can also lead to disturbed sleep. Unfortunately there is no treatment for noise-induced tinnitus. For further information on tinnitus go to the British tinnitus association website.
Do I have a noise problem at work?
This will depend on how loud the noise is and how long you are exposed to it. As a simple guide you will probably have to do something about noise if any of the following apply:
- Is the noise intrusive – like a busy street, a vacuum cleaner or a crowded restaurant – for most of the working day?
- Do employees have to raise their voices to carry out normal converation when about 2 metres apart for at least part of the working day?
- Do employees use noisy powered tools or machinery for more than half an hour each day?
- Do you work in a noisy industry, eg construction, demolition or road repair; woodworking; plastics processing; engineering; textile manufacture; general fabricattion; forging, pressing or stamping; paper or board making; canning or bottling; foundries?
- Are there noises due to impacts (such as hammering, drop forging, pneumatic impact tools etc), explosive sources such as cartridge-operated tools or detonators, or guns?
What is an action level? Why is there more than one level set down?
An action level is basically a noise exposure level at which employers are required to take certain steps to reduce the harmful effects of noise on hearing. There are two main action levels for continuous Noise:
- The lower exposure action value is a daily or weekly average noise exposure level of 80 dB, at which the employer has to provide information and training and make hearing protection available.
- The upper exposure action value is set at a daily or weekly average noise exposure of 85 dB, above which the employer is required to take reasonably practicable measures to reduce noise exposure, such as engineering controls or other technical measures. The use of hearing protection is also mandatory if the noise cannot be controlled by these measures, or while these measures are being planned or carried out.
- Finally there is an exposure limit value of 87 dB, above which no worker can be exposed (taking hearing protection into account).
How do I calculate personal exposure for individuals?
If the simple guide suggests that you have a noise problem, you may need to get a competent person, possibly in your own company, to measure the noise and determine the representative daily or weekly personal noise exposure during a noise assessment. They will measure the sound pressure level at the different places the person works and for the different tasks carried out during the day. The average is calculated from these values and the time spent in each place or at each task. Information on getting started with a noise risk assessment is in INDG362 and more detail can be found in the HSE publication L108 Controlling Noise at Work.
Why should an employer spend money on noise reduction - especially to save only a few decibels?
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 require the reduction of noise exposure. Reducing noise levels at source provides the most effective way of protecting workers' hearing as well as providing numerous other benefits to companies. Noise can create stress, and can be a safety hazard at work, interfering with communication, acting as a distraction and making warnings harder to hear.
Because noise is measured on a logarithmic scale, a reduction in noise of 3 dB, which seems small, is in fact the equivalent of halving the intensity of the noise. This would mean that the person could work for twice as long at the reduced level and have the same daily personal noise exposure as before.
We are buying machinery (new or secondhand). If it is noisy, should we reduce it to the lowest level before putting it into use?
Suppliers of new machinery are under an obligation to design and construct their products to produce as little noise as possible. The case is similar with secondhand machinery, although the situation will depend upon when the machinery was first supplied, and whether it has been substantially refurbished.
Even if you have bought in the quietest machinery possible, you still have duties to reduce the risks to your employees, so further action may be required.
The main requirements apply where employees' noise exposure is likely to be at or above any of the action levels. In these cases you must, so far as is reasonably practicable, reduce their exposure to noise in ways other than by providing hearing protection.
The best and most obvious way of reducing exposure is by controlling the noise at source, i.e. making the machine as quiet as possible. Information on how to control noise is available in the free HSE leaflet Noise at work: A brief guide to controlling the risks and in more detail in the books Sound Solutions and Reducing Noise at Work
Why do employers have to reduce noise at source when workers can wear hearing protection?
The various types of hearing protection (earmuffs, ear plugs, semi-inserts) are not the best forms of protection because they rely on individual workers using the equipment correctly. They can also fail or be inefficient without this being visibly obvious. The effectiveness of hearing protection is reliant on its condition and whether it fits correctly.
When do I need to provide hearing protection? What kind?
You are required to provide your employees with hearing protection if they ask for it and their noise exposure is between the lower and upper exposure action values.
You must provide your employees with hearing protectors and make sure they use them properly when their noise exposure exceeds the upper exposure action values.
The main types of hearing protection are:
- Earmuffs, which completely cover the ear;
- Earplugs, which are inserted in the ear canal; and
- Semi-inserts (also called 'canal caps'), which cover the entrance to the ear canal.
You should use the results from your noise assessment and the information from hearing protection suppliers to make the best choice of hearing protection. Aim to get below 85 dB at the ear, and ensure it is suitable for the employees' working environment and compatible with other protective equipment used by the employee (e.g. hard hats, dust mask, eye protection).
Wherever possible, provide your employees with a suitable range of effective hearing protectors so they can choose ones that suit them. Some employees may prefer a particular type, or may not be able to use some types of hearing protection because of the risk of ear infections.
This information comes from the free HSE leaflet Noise at work: A brief guide to controlling the risks Detailed guidance on the use hearing protection can be found in the HSE book Controlling Noise at Work (L108).
What happens if an employee refuses to wear hearing protection?
You need to ensure that employees use hearing protection when required to do so. You may want to include the need to wear hearing protection in your safety policy and put someone in authority in overall charge of issuing it and making sure replacement hearing protection is readily available. You may also want to carry out spot checks to see that the rules are being followed and that hearing protection is being used properly.
If employees persistently fail to use protectors properly you should follow your normal company disciplinary procedures.
You should ensure that all managers and supervisors set a good example and wear hearing protection at all times when in hearing protection zones.
What about self-employed people?
If you are self-employed you need to take the same action to protect yourself as an employer takes to protect employees, and to use protective equipment on the same basis as employees. Employers also need to take action to protect those who are employed by them to work at home.
What legislation covers noise exposure of members of the public e.g. from construction works?
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 deal only with people at work. However the duties set out in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 are more general in scope and mean that employers need to take action if noise creates a risk to people other than workers. As an employer, where people who are not at work are exposed to noise risk by your activities, you will need to do what is reasonably practicable to safeguard their health and safety by action similar to that taken for your employees.
Local authorities can issue a notice, under Section 60 of The Control of Pollution Act 1974, to construction/maintenance operations, containing conditions for work which may include noise requirements.
For further information on noise nuisance follow this link to the Defra noise website
- Noise: Don't lose your hearing
- Noise at work: A brief guide to controlling the risks
- Myth-buster on noise in music and entertainment
- Hearing loss - what's it like?