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Safety, health, and wellbeing at work

03 April 2024

IT IS widely accepted that in the past we have tended to ‘shout safety and whisper health’, the latter mainly due to the time taken for the chronic effects of repeated exposure to chemical agents, such as dust and vapours and physical agents such as vibration and noise, to present as ill-health symptoms.

In recent years we have also witnessed a new focus on wider issues that can impact on people’s health at work, namely wellbeing.

Benefits of good wellbeing

Wellbeing (at work) refers to the overall state of health, happiness, and satisfaction that employees experience in their workplace. It encompasses physical, mental, and emotional aspects of an individual's health and is influenced by various factors within the work environment. Here are some key components of wellbeing at work:

  • Physical Health: This includes factors such as ergonomic workstations, access to natural light, opportunities for physical activity, and a focus on overall health and safety.
  • Mental Health: Employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of mental health in the workplace. Creating a supportive and open environment, offering mental health resources, and reducing stigma around mental health issues contribute to employee wellbeing.
  • Work-Life Balance: Providing flexibility in work schedules, promoting reasonable working hours, and respecting personal time contribute to a healthier work-life balance, preventing burnout and stress.
  • Job Satisfaction: Employees' satisfaction with their roles, responsibilities, and the workplace culture plays a crucial role in their overall wellbeing. Recognizing and rewarding achievements, fostering a positive team environment, and providing opportunities for professional growth contribute to job satisfaction.

Organizations are increasingly recognising that investing in employee wellbeing not only fosters a healthier and more positive workplace but also contributes to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism, and improved employee retention. Creating a holistic approach to wellbeing at work involves addressing these various aspects to create a supportive and thriving work environment.

Noise and wellbeing

Take noise exposure for example, which is a common factor in many workplaces but also the wider built environment. And while it is well known for example that long-term exposure to high level noise can give rise to the condition known as noise induced hearing loss (NIHL), exposure to excessive or prolonged noise can also have various adverse effects on health of both a physical and psychological nature, effects including:

  • Tinnitus: Exposure to loud noises can lead to the perception of ringing, buzzing, or other sounds in the ears, known as tinnitus. This condition can be persistent and impact one's quality of life.
  • Sleep Disturbances: Noise can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or achieving deep and restful sleep. This can result in fatigue, irritability, and decreased overall well-being.
  • Stress and Anxiety: Constant exposure to noise, especially if it's loud or unpredictable, can contribute to increased stress levels and anxiety. This can have long-term effects on mental health and may contribute to conditions like chronic stress.
  • Cardiovascular Issues: Chronic exposure to noise has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular problems, including hypertension and an elevated risk of heart disease. The stress response triggered by noise can lead to the release of stress hormones that affect the cardiovascular system.
  • Cognitive Impacts: Noise can impair concentration, focus, and cognitive performance. It may interfere with tasks that require attention, leading to decreased productivity and performance in work or academic settings.
  • Social and Behavioural Changes: Noise pollution can lead to changes in behaviour, including increased aggression and irritability. It can also impact social interactions and communication by making it difficult to hear and understand speech.
  • Impaired Learning and Academic Performance: For students, exposure to noise in educational settings can hinder learning and academic performance. It may affect reading comprehension, information retention, and overall cognitive development.
  • Compromised Immune Function: A Chinese study [1] suggest that chronic exposure to noise may weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses and infections. The study states that according to the World Health Organization (WHO), by 2011, noise pollution had already become the most important environmental threat to public health after air pollution. Conversely music can have an opposite, positive effect.

It's important to note that individual susceptibility to noise varies, and the effects depend on factors such as the intensity, duration, and frequency of exposure. And while many noisy industries may now use quieter methods or robots to do the work, new sources of exposure such as from the use of headphones, pose a problem at both work and play. 

Legislation, such as the Control of Noise at Work Regulations (2005) and the application of the hierarchy of controls, play a crucial role in mitigating these potential health effects. Best practice is to carry out a risk assessment typically backed by objective noise measurements using a sound level meter and/or noise dosimeter that conforms to a recognised standard.

Long-term, ill health

Currently, more than 2.5 million UK adults are economically inactive due to one or more long-term health conditions, with over half (1.3 million) suffering from depression, bad nerves or anxiety with many people reporting more than one health issue according to ONS data. 

The bar graph shows the significant post pandemic rise of the top 10 types of health conditions of people aged 16 to 64 years who are economically inactive because of long-term sickness for the period January to March 2019 to January to March 2023.

Noise exposure and dementia

There is also a growing body of research, such as that published in the British Medical Journal suggesting a potential association between exposure to chronic noise and an increased risk of dementia. According to the WHO, they estimate that about 50 million people worldwide have some form of dementia, with nearly 10 million new patients added to that number each year.

It's important to note that while there is evidence suggesting a potential link between noise exposure and dementia, more research is needed to establish causation and understand the underlying mechanisms. Additionally, other lifestyle factors, genetics, and overall health play significant roles in the development of dementia.

In conclusion, noise exposure is a common stressor in our daily lives, which, left unmitigated, can significantly impact our quality of life as well as our hearing and general health.  

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