Noise control: A sound plan needed
25 April 2018
There has been a reduction in recent years in the number of reported cases of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) that result from noise at work, with a fall both in the number of new claims and in the number of affected workers. However, according to Pulsar Instruments, we’re now at the point where further reductions in NIHL will require much better and much earlier interventions – especially for high risk workers
According to HSE, data reported incidences of work-related hearing loss have decreased and the number of new claims for work related noise induced hearing loss has almost halved as health and safety professionals become increasingly aware of the need to protect their employees’ hearing. However, many companies employ a blanket approach to providing hearing protection; they are over-prescribing it – either the amount of time it has to be worn (e.g. all day, every work day), or with the ‘strength of protection’ afforded in a sticking plaster type approach.
Often the attitude of getting the strongest protection possible prevails. Whilst this may have had some success in getting incidences of NIHL down, it is problematic for both the worker and the company in the long run. Over-prescribing hearing protection can block a worker's ability to communicate with others, which can become isolating, increase occurrences of poor job satisfaction, depression and staff sickness, and decrease productivity. It can also impair a worker's ability to hear fire alarms, other emergency messages or, for example, vehicles reversing.
There is anecdotal evidence that over-prescribing hearing protection leads to workers neglecting to wear it – ‘the comfort and hygiene factors’ – or they may wear protection that is not well-fitted or use it incorrectly.
Why reduce NIHL?
Employers have a legal obligation under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations (2005) to safeguard the hearing of their workforce. Disregarding this can lead to civil compensation claims for industrial deafness, resulting in loss of revenue and a negative impact on business reputation and ability to recruit and retain competent staff.
The degree of damage to hearing is determined by both the level of the noise and the length of exposure (see infographic).
No one is suggesting that we stop using hearing PPE, but it should be a last resort. Companies should focus on reducing noise at work in-situ. Though many of us are all far more aware of noise and its impacts these days, there are still many factories and other work sites with too much noise. The HSE advises companies to put the emphasis on control of noise at source and rely less on PPE, carry out better surveys and reporting, and perform health surveillance for people with noise exposures of 85dB(A) or above (or in such locations where it is difficult to eliminate risks). Such audiometric surveillance is expensive, so often the most practical long term solution is to reduce noise at source.
In 2015 Pulsar Published its Guide for Employers '5 Steps to Controlling Workplace Noise'; whilst this Guide remains relevant, if we are really going to ‘manage out’ workplace hearing loss, then we need to look beyond this to include early intervention such as:
- Conduct comprehensive noise assessment surveys and measurements using suitable Class 2 sound level meters (such as the Pulsar Nova) to identify
- which employees are at risk
- where and when are they at risk.
- Carry out noise abatement work or engineer solutions to control noise at source
- Repair, replace or upgrade noisy machinery
- Mark out areas of concern and provide appropriate noise-activated warning signs such as the PulsarSafeEar
- Establish a buy quiet policy and company noise policy
- Provide training and education for all staff
As the person responsible for health and safety in your workplace, your primary aim should be to reduce noise and then apply the correct level of PPE as a last resort.
Practicalities may seem to dictate that PPE is the only solution for many companies, but for long-term control and maximum benefits, companies should always try to put noise control measures in place first wherever possible.