Noise levels at work

Industrial deafness can ruin lives. It can also be costly for your organisation

In 2015, the Association of British Insurers recorded a 189% increase in hearing loss claims over the previous three years.

Excessive noise can also impact worker safety, and your compliance with workplace regulations.

So it’s fair to say noise is worth shouting about. By controlling noise and its risks, you can create a safer workplace and avoid disputes.

What makes noise so harmful?

Noise at work can lead to both hearing damage and safety issues.

Sudden and long-term hearing damage

Employee’s ears can be damaged by noise in two ways. Extremely loud noises can affect hearing instantly. And long-term exposure to noise can gradually cause hearing loss over time. Hearing damage can lead to compensation claims against your company.

Safety issues

In a noisy workplace, workers find it harder to communicate and are less likely to hear warning sounds. This leads to greater risk of injury.

Workplace noise and the law

Besides the usual health and safety responsibilities, employers are also legally bound by the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005.

The regulations require you to:

  • Make sure legal noise exposure limits are not exceeded
  • Take action against employee noise exposure, such as by reducing noise levels or providing personal hearing protection.
  • Help protect employees by maintaining equipment, providing training where required, and carrying out health surveillance.

What about non-employees?

The regulations don’t cover non-employees’ at your workplace. However, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 may apply in these cases.

The legal limits on noise exposure are 87db for personal noise exposure and 140db for peak sound pressure.

The Noise regulations also define ‘exposure action values’ for noise levels.

The exposure action values for daily or weekly personal noise exposure are 80 db (lower) and 85 db (upper). The action values for peak sound pressure are 135 db (lower) or 137 db (upper). You must take action if your noise exposure estimate exceeds these decibel (db) values.

How to assess noise at your workplace

Noise exposure levels aren’t the only thing to measure when deciding how to control noise. You should also carry out a risk assessment to:

  • Identify risks to health and safety, and who is at risk.
  • Estimate employees’ noise exposure, including peak sound pressure levels and daily personal noise exposure for the workers at risk. See ‘Noise exposure limits’ below.
  • Identify employees who are at particular risk and need health surveillance.

When to take action on noise

Even if your assessment finds levels within legal limits, Health and Safety Executive guidelines advise you should still take action if:

  • Noise is intrusive for most of the day
  • Workers have to raise their voices to converse for at least part of every day
  • Noisy tools or machinery are in use more than 30 minutes per day
  • There are loud impact noises such as hammering or explosions
  • You operate in a noisy sector such as construction, demolition, manufacturing, or recycling

Actions to control noise exposure

Thankfully, there are lots of measures you can take to control noise. Noise Guidelines says measures must be ‘reasonable practicable.’ This means you can consider financial costs and take actions that are proportional to the risk.

Choosing quieter machinery and processes

Workplace noise is often caused by heavy machinery. Opportunities to reduce this noise include:

  • Investigating use of quieter machinery and processes
  • Dampening noise by using screens, enclosures or absorbent materials
  • Regular maintenance of machinery

Protecting workers from noise

Reducing noise itself should be the primary goal of your noise control measures. However, you can also issue personal hearing protection equipment when extra protection is needed. You can also use hearing protection equipment as a short-term measure while developing other noise control methods.

Under the Noise Regulations, you should provide hearing protection equipment:

  • When noise levels exceed the upper exposure action values.
  • When noise levels are between the lower and upper action values, and employees ask for them.

You should also identify hearing protection zones where employees are required to wear hearing protection.

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