It is fair to say that in all work places there are multiple hazards that employers and employees must be aware of in order to operate safely. Some of these are obvious such as moving vehicles, use of tools and equipment, working at height etc. One of the hazards that I find is frequently overlooked is noise levels in the workplace. Noise may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of health and safety hazards in the workplace however it may have a much larger impact than you think!
Loud noise can create physical and psychological stress, reduce productivity, interfere with communication and concentration, and contribute to workplace accidents and injuries by making it difficult to hear warning signals. The effects of noise induced hearing loss can be profound, limiting your ability to hear high frequency sounds, understand speech, and seriously impairing your ability to communicate.
"So what should be done?" I hear you say [pun intended!]
Well, first of all you should conduct a risk assessment of your workplace and processes to identify where noise may be an issue. This could include tools, stationary equipment or machinery such as air receivers or extraction, radios or media, It is also important to think about your offsite activities as well. If there is a probability that persons are going to be exposed to excessive or frequent noise then it would be recommended that a specialist is consulted to conduct a noise assessment of your workplace. Again, this would include any tools used and machinery present as well as the lay out and acoustics of the building as this would have an effect. From this you will be given the current noise levels produced and any high risk areas.
From here you need to consider the risk and how you can mitigate or reduce this risk. Controls are wide and varied, and it is important to state at this point that hearing protection is NOT the first place to start, after all, PPE is the last line of defence not the first!
Firstly you need to consider what it is that is creating the noise. Mostly this is going to be tools/equipment, machinery or plant. You need to consider if this process is necessary or could it be removed to eliminate the noise. If this is necessary, then can it be altered? For example, swapping a tool for an alternative that produces less noise, or relocating an air receiver to an external location. As well as this you can reduce noise levels by dampening or sound proofing equipment with suitable materials. Isolating the noise to certain areas by constructing walls or curtains will limit the impact on the rest of the work place. Once you have taken all reasonable measures to eliminate/reduce noise output, you can then look at whether or not hearing protection is required, and what type of hearing protection should be provided. For certain areas you may need to implement a “hearing protection zone” which means that hearing protection is mandatory in this area.
Once you have control measures in place it is then important that you should monitor these control measures to ensure that they are working. An effective way of doing this is by have periodic health surveillance by an occupational health specialist. This is where medical tests will be conducted by a qualified specialist in order to monitor employees hearing levels and identify when there is a risk of damage to hearing. Advice from the HSE is that a baseline questionnaire should be completed by the employee at the start of employment; this is where they can provide any details of existing conditions you would need to be aware of before commencing work. If your workplace has a high exposure to noise then you would then consider providing a hearing test initially, and then annually or bi-annually dependant on the risk. If a referral is made then you know that control measures should be reviewed and amended if applicable to ensure the employee is not put at undue risk.
If you have any questions or queries regarding this then please feel free to contact us and we will be more than happy to provide you with further information.
Jamie McPhie, TechIOSH
KVF Senior H*S Advisor