According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), hearing loss caused by work is preventable, but once hearing has gone, it won’t come back. Again, HSE estimates that more than two million people in Great Britain are exposed to unacceptable levels of noise at work, with noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) the second most common reason for employers’ liability insurance claims for occupational health.
Exposure to many different sources of noise, such as pneumatic impact tools, drills and chainsaws, has a cumulative effect and can cause damage, even if a worker is only exposed to a single source for short time periods. Among the types of damage are tinnitus and deafness.
Employers have a duty to protect workers and take steps to reduce the risk under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005. The regulations replaced the Noise at Work Regulations 1989. According to the HSE, the level at which employers must provide hearing protection and hearing protection zones is now 85 decibels (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 now 80 decibels (www.is.gd/alokep). There is also an exposure limit value of 87 decibels, taking account of any reduction in exposure provided by hearing protection, above which workers must not be exposed.
Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational safety and health policy adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, says: “Any business where there is an interfering noise for most of the day, [such as] a vacuum cleaner, busy street or crowded bar, can predispose you to risk. The rule of thumb being that if you must raise your voice to speak to someone two metres away, then your hearing may be damaged by the noise levels. More immediately obvious is where powered or pneumatic tools of machines are being used, [such as in] grounds maintenance, construction and manufacturing. Demolition, agriculture and waste recycling are all environments that, if the correct noise controls are not in place, NIHL may occur as a result.”
When it comes to noise, both management and the workforce need to work together to address workplace health issues. For employees, the HSE advises a mixture of obedience, reporting, and the right PPE for protection (www.is.gd/jinube).
Employees need to help employers by using any noise control devices, and follow any working methods that are put in place. It is also advised that employees attend hearing checks and take some responsibility for their own hearing. Any problems with hearing protection or noise control devices should also be reported straight away.
Furthermore, they are advised to “wear any hearing protection” given and “wear it properly”. Training should have been given on how to do this. “Make sure you wear it all the time when you are doing noisy work, and when you are in hearing protection areas,” the HSE says. “Taking it off even for a short while means that your hearing could still be damaged”. And remember, look after your hearing protection.
There are a variety of different ear protection PPE on the market. The types that are available, according to national charity Action on Hearing Loss (www.is.gd/ozakof), include:
●Disposable earplugs – usually made from mineral wadding, foam, or soft silicone.
●Reusable earplugs – made from foam, soft plastic, or rubber.
● Earplugs for the catering industry – can be detected using a metal detector.
● Custom-made earplugs – tend to be expensive, but should attenuate noise more effectively.
● Earmuffs (or ear defenders) – look like large headphones and have a hard cup fit.
● Canal caps – Useful for noise that comes and goes.
McDonnell adds that employees should ask their employer about risks to hearing, where noisy areas are, and whether any monitoring been carried out. “Where monitoring has identified areas where workers may be at risk, these should be clearly delineated, and the range of control measures in place explained to workers. Through being involved in the conversation about noise control measures, workers become engaged and more likely to ensure control measures provided are used and correctly maintained,” she says.
“Workers should be aware of the requirement to wear hearing protection where extra protection is needed after noise reduction control measures are put in place. Hearing protectors may also be used as a short-term control until employers have put in place other noise reduction control measures. Where issued hearing protectors must be provided free of charge, and training provided to ensure they are used in the right way.”
While it is accepted that PPE, such as ear protectors, can help in combating high noise exposure, Jonathan Wilkins, director at industrial automation parts supplier EU Automation, warns that it can also be counterproductive, because “the complete absence of sounds” can also be distressing. He explains that sensory deprivation, which includes isolation from sounds for extended periods, is currently categorised by Amnesty International as white psychological torture.
“Using PPE has contributed to reducing job-related hearing loss claims, but overusing them has several shortcomings. The main one is that ear protectors reduce workers’ ability to communicate with others, which can lead to a feeling of alienation and consequently poor job satisfaction,” he says.
“Another problem is that workers may be unable to hear fire alarms and other sounds that should alert them, such as those produced by an approaching vehicle. Lastly, with PPE, there’s always the risk that workers might choose not to wear it for reasons of comfort and hygiene, or that they might fail to alert the manager if their PPE is broken or doesn’t fit properly.”
To avoid the shortcomings of ear protectors, the “best thing” is to try and control the noise produced by your equipment, he continues. “There are many cost-effective ways of doing so, and every business, no matter its size, should implement an appropriate noise control programme. The first step for creating one is conducting a comprehensive noise assessment survey to determine the noisiest areas of your facility, and identify which employees are at risk of hearing damage.” Noisy machines can then be isolated in a variety of ways, such as enclosing equipment and adding lining with sound-absorbing materials.
“However, the most effective tool for sound reduction is a low-noise purchasing policy. When purchasing a piece of equipment, noise data should be considered alongside other characteristics. Finally, perform proper and regular maintenance of machinery that takes noise into account. It can be necessary to upgrade equipment or substitute parts of it, since worn out materials or loose cables often produce excessive vibration.
“Being at work shouldn’t be a torture, and workers shouldn’t have to choose between ear-splitting noise or alienating ear protectors. With the right sound-control method, noise can be effectively kept under control without compromising on employee safety and comfort.”
SELECTED PRODUCT SOLUTIONS
The scale of products and solutions for reducing noise exposure in industry is wide. Indeed, as already established, ear protectors are very common, and some tools and equipment can even be isolated. However, there are other solutions that can also be implemented.
Air sampling, noise and vibration specialist Casella has launched NoiseSafe, which it says is an advanced and reliable software package for its personal noise dosimeter, the dBadge2 (www.is.gd/kuhego). When used alongside the dBadge2, it is claimed to be an ideal tool for fast and efficient reporting and analysis of noise exposure levels.
The NoiseSafe software saves the user time with its instantaneous reporting on an employee’s noise exposure levels. Linked to the noise dosimeter, the software downloads a typical eight-hour workplace recording in just a few seconds. Audio and motion can be analysed to determine if any of the data is erroneous, which can be quickly and easily removed from exposure data.
Tim Turney, technical product manager at Casella, explains, “The new software is designed to make noise assessments easier for managers concerned with the health of their employees. The graphs and data produced can easily be customised depending on the user’s requirements, making reporting pain-free and quick.”
Manufacturing firm 3M is another company that offers personal noise dosimeters. A key feature of its Edge cable-free noise dosimeters is the ability to analyse and measure collected data.
Paul Clark, business line manager at Atlas Copco Tools & Industrial Assembly Solutions, outlines some tool innovations. He explains that, with operations such as grinding, riveting and chipping, it is very difficult to reduce noise levels. “For scaling applications, one solution is to fix the chisel to the reciprocating piston, as is the case with the Atlas Copco RVM07B Scaler,” he explains. “The shock wave that would have been caused when a piston hits the chisel is not present and hence process noise levels are much reduced.
“In terms of fastening tools, it is well known that pneumatic impact wrenches produce high noise levels. However, despite this, these tools remain popular because of their high torque capacity and low reaction force. A solution to the noise problem has been found in development of hydraulic impulse tools, in which Atlas Copco has been a leading innovator.” One example includes the tools in its ErgoPulse range, which features a hydraulic impulse unit, as opposed to a conventional mechanical impact mechanism, which generates a smoother torque pulse and therefore much lower process noise levels. “There are a lot of things an employer can do to control the noise level in a workshop. From the air tool point of view, it is of course important to use tools that have low noise emission. However, it is also important to choose tools that can do the job fast. Daily exposure is a combination of noise and time.”
These are just some solutions to reduce noise exposure. Employers have a legal duty to protect worker hearing, but employees also need to do their bit to squash health issues.
BOX OUT: Calling all construction, demolition and infrastructure workers
HSE Training and Events is looking to develop two new one-day, back-to-back workshops. The first would cover occupational noise risk management and the second hand-arm vibration measurement and management.
HSE Training and Events has proposed a one-day workshop on noise risk management for the construction, demolition and infrastructure industries to show how implementing effective risk assessment, management and noise control can reduce risk by 75%.
The workshop would give delegates the practical knowledge needed to be able to:
● Understand the HSE attitude to noise control and the regulatory requirements
● Understand noise measurement and risk assessment best practice
● Ensure that PPE is effective on site
● Understand the uses and practical applications for standard acoustic materials
● Understand different noise control measures, their performance and their limitations
● Understand how on-site occupational noise controls can also reduce off-site environmental noise problems
● Discuss with HSE (and potentially solve) current noise risk management problems.
The HSE says that those likely to benefit from this workshop include health, safety and environmental professionals, project and other engineers involved in all aspects of noise risk assessment and management.
Anyone interested in seeing this workshop developed should email: firstname.lastname@example.org