Loud noise at work can damage your hearing. This usually happens gradually and it may only be when the damage caused by noise combines with hearing loss due to ageing that people realise how impaired their hearing has become.
Why dealing with noise is important
Noise at work can cause temporary or permanent hearing damage that is disabling.
This can be:
- gradual, from exposure to noise over time
- caused by sudden, extremely loud noises
People often experience temporary deafness after leaving a noisy place. Although hearing recovers within a few hours, this should not be ignored. It is a sign that if they continue to be exposed to the noise, their hearing could be permanently damaged.
The damage is disabling in that it can stop people being able to understand speech, keep up with conversations or use the telephone.
Hearing loss is not the only problem. People may develop tinnitus (ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming in the ears), a distressing condition which can lead to disturbed sleep.
Noise at work can interfere with communications and make warnings harder to hear. It can also reduce a person’s awareness of his or her surroundings. These factors can lead to safety risks – putting people at risk of injury or death.
Young people can be damaged as easily as the old.
Am I at risk?
You are at risk if you can answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions about the noise where you work:
- Is the noise intrusive – like a busy street, a vacuum cleaner or a crowded restaurant – for most of the working day?
- Do you have to raise your voice to have a normal conversation when about 2 m apart for at least part of the day?
- Do you use noisy powered tools or machinery for over half an hour a day?
- Do you work in a noisy industry, eg construction, demolition or road repair; woodworking; plastics processing; engineering; textile manufacture; general fabrication; forging, pressing or stamping; paper or board making; canning or bottling; foundries?
- Are there noises because of impacts (eg hammering, drop forging, pneumatic impact tools etc), explosive sources such as cartridge-operated tools or detonators, or guns?
- Do you have muffled hearing at the end of the day, even if it is better by the next morning?
Symptoms and early signs of hearing loss
- Conversation becomes difficult or impossible
- Your family complains about the television being too loud
- You have trouble using the telephone
- You find it difficult to catch sounds like ‘t’, ‘d’ and ‘s’, so you confuse similar words
- Permanent tinnitus (ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming in the ears) can also be caused
Generally hearing loss is gradual. By the time you notice it, it is probably too late. We want to prevent hearing loss before it happens. You can also suffer instant damage from very loud or explosive noises.
How do I protect myself?
Co-operate. Help your employer to do what is needed to protect your hearing. Make sure you use properly any noise control devices (eg noise enclosures), and follow any working methods that are put in place. Also attend hearing checks. This means you need to take some responsibility for your hearing.
Wear any hearing protection you are given. Wear it properly (you should be trained how to do this), and make sure you wear it all the time when you are doing noisy work, and when you are in hearing protection areas. Taking it off even for a short while means that your hearing could still be damaged. Remember that there is no cure for deafness.
Look after your hearing protection. Your employer should tell you how to look after it and where you can get it from. Make sure you understand what you need to do.
Report any problems with your hearing protection or noise control devices straight away. Let your employer or safety representative know. If you have any ear trouble, let your employer know.
Try the shout test – if you are shouting at work and can’t be heard from two metres away, then that is a good indicator that there could be a noise issue.
Exposure calculators and ready-reckoners
The noise exposure calculators can help you work out your daily noise exposure, weekly noise exposures, and estimate the performance of hearing protection.
- Noise exposure calculator
- Hearing protection calculators
- Removal of hearing protectors severely reduces protection – online tool
Noise exposure ready-reckoners
The noise exposure ready-reckoners allow you to estimate daily or weekly noise exposure. To use the daily exposure ready-reckoner you will need to know the levels of noise and durations of exposure which make up a person’s working day. For weekly noise exposure, appropriate where somebody’s noise exposure varies markedly from day to day, you will need to know the daily noise exposure for each day in the working week. These ready-reckoners can be printed for completion by hand.
Hearing protection should be issued to employees:
- where extra protection is needed above what has been achieved using noise control
- as a short-term measure while other methods of controlling noise are being developed
Hearing protection should not be used as an alternative to controlling noise by technical and organisational means.
Protectors that reduce the level at the ear to below 70 dB should be avoided, since this over-protection may cause difficulties with communication and hearing warning signals.
Users may become isolated from their environment, leading to safety risks. This generally may have a tendency to remove the hearing protection and therefore risk damage to their hearing.
How hearing protection can be used effectively
- make sure the protectors give enough protection – aim at least to get below 85 dB at the ear
- target the use of protectors to the noisy tasks and jobs in a working day
- select protectors which are suitable for the working environment – consider how comfortable and hygienic they are
- think about how they will be worn with other protective equipment (e.g. hard hats, dust masks and eye protection)
- provide a range of protectors so that employees can choose ones which suit them
- provide protectors which cut out too much noise – this can cause isolation, or lead to an unwillingness to wear them
- make the use of hearing protectors compulsory where the law doesn’t require it
- have a ‘blanket’ approach to hearing protection – better to target its use and only encourage people to wear it when they need to
You will need to make sure that hearing protection works effectively and check that:
- it remains in good, clean condition
- earmuff seals are undamaged
- the tension of the headbands is not reduced
- there are no unofficial modifications
- compressible earplugs are soft, pliable and clean
Information and training
Hearing protection will only be effective when used and fitted correctly. It should be worn at all times in a noisy environment, as removing it for only a few minutes will considerably lower the protection to the wearer.
You must give users instructions in the correct fitting and use of hearing protection,
- why you are issuing hearing protectors
- how to fit hearing protectors properly
- where and when they must be used
- how to avoid potential interference on the effectiveness of their hearing protection, such as
> long hair
> woolly hats
Any instructions or training should also cover:
- where appropriate, how to wear hearing protection in combination with other personal protective equipment
- the importance of wearing their hearing protection at all times in a noisy environment
- how to store their hearing protection correctly
- how to care for and to check their hearing protection at frequent intervals
- where to report damage to their hearing protection
- how to obtain replacement or new protectors
Checks you need to make
Bosses must assess and identify measures to eliminate or reduce risks from exposure to noise so that they can protect the hearing of their workers.
If you are already using hearing protection, it needs to be managed so try using
C = Condition; is the hearing protection in good condition?
U = Use: are workers using the hearing protection all the times they should be?
F = Fit; does the hearing protection fit the wearer?
F = Fit for purpose; have you selected hearing protection that gives the right level ofnoise reduction?
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (the Noise Regulations) came into force for all industry sectors in Great Britain on 6 April 2006 (except for the music and entertainment sectors where they came into force on 6 April 2008).
The aim of the Noise Regulations is to ensure that workers’ hearing is protected from excessive noise at their place of work, which could cause them to lose their hearing and/or to suffer from tinnitus (permanent ringing in the ears).
The level at which employers must provide hearing protection and hearing protection zones is 85 dB(A) (daily or weekly average exposure) and the level at which employers must assess the risk to workers’ health and provide them with information and training is 80 dB(A). There is also an exposure limit value of 87 dB(A), taking account of any reduction in exposure provided by hearing protection, above which workers must not be exposed.
The full text of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 and the full text of the Noise at Work Regulations 1989 can be viewed online.
Guidance on the 2005 Regulations can be found in the HSE publications Noise at work: A brief guide to controlling the risks and Controlling Noise at Work.
For more information or support, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or 01268 649006.