Do you operate in an industry where noise levels are high? Are you concerned about the impact of noise on your workers? Do you need to control exposure and mitigate potential risks? We guide you through your responsibilities offer advice on how to manage noise in the workplace…

Exposure to high levels of noise at work will damage hearing. Sudden, extremely loud noise can cause immediate damage, and the higher the noise that employees are exposed to, the faster the hearing damage will become apparent.

The damage caused by noise is both permanent and disabling, and will stop affected workers from:

  • Being able to keep up with conversations
  • Hearing broadcast speech
  • Using the telephone

In addition to the above, it may also lead to tinnitus – a permanent and often distressing ringing, buzzing, hissing and whistling in the ears.

Noise and safety

It’s important to understand that hearing loss can lead to safety issues in the workplace, such as:

  • Interfering with communication
  • Reducing people’s awareness of their surroundings
  • Making it harder to hear warning sounds

Some sectors and jobs are always likely to be associated with very high noise levels – these include:

  • The entertainment industry
  • Busy pubs and clubs with loud music
  • Engineering and textile trades
  • Construction, demolition and road repair

Your responsibilities

As a rule of thumb, employers will need to take action to control exposure to noise if:

  • Noise is intrusive or worse than intrusive for most of the working day e.g. a busy restaurant or vacuum cleaner
  • People need to raise their voices to carry out a normal conversation when they’re 2 metres apart for at least part of the day.
  • Noisy tools or equipment such as drills, grinders or chainsaws are used for more than half an hour each day.
  • The noise source is explosive or impactive.

Regulations require employers to protect both employees and others who could be at risk from exposure to noise created by their business activity. The action required will depend on the peak level of exposure, and average exposures over both the working week and the working day.

Employers should:

  • Complete a noise risk assessment setting out noise hazards, estimating likely exposure to noise and identifying measures to eliminate or reduce noise exposure.
  • Take action to reduce noise exposure wherever possible. Where it’s not possible to reduce exposure to less than 85 decibels (dBa), hearing protection must be supplied to and used by anyone exposed; where the level is less than 85 but above 80dBa, hearing protection must be offered.
  • Explain the noise hazard, the outcome of their assessment and actions required to protect hearing to employees.
  • Introduce health surveillance, including hearing checks, where the action level of 85dBa is exceeded.

No one should be exposed to noise greater than 87dBa averaged over the working day and week or to a peak sound pressure of 140dBa or higher.

The lower exposure action values are daily or weekly exposure of 80dBa and peak sound pressure less than 135dBa. Upper exposure action values are daily or weekly exposure of 85dBa and peak sound pressure of 137dBa.

How to reduce exposure

Some simple steps employers can take to reduce noise exposure include:

  • Engineering controls, such as avoiding metal-on metal impacts, adding sound deadening panels to vibrating machinery, standing machines on anti-vibration pads and silencing air exhausts and nozzles.
  • Reducing the extent of noise travelling from one part of the premises to another through the use of enclosures, barriers or screens.
  • Regular maintenance of equipment which will minimise noise due to friction and moving parts.
  • Mark hearing protection zones with prominent notices.
  • Rotating tasks in order to limit the time that any employee is exposed to high noise levels.
  • Ensuring that the workforce wears appropriate hearing protection and taking formal action where they fail to do so.

Longer term measures include:

  • Changing the design and layout of the workplace for low noise emission
  • Adopting a new approach to the work process, or purchasing new, quieter, sound-reduced equipment.