Since the introduction of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, there has been a great drive to assess employees’ daily exposure levels, ensuring that they do not exceed the new action values. A number of workplace noise assessments have already been undertaken across the UK, the findings of which have resulted in:
- Improved classification of hearing protection zones
- Introduction of, or increased hearing protection
- Implementation of health surveillance programs
- Improved employee instruction and training
The implementation of these points has resulted in vastly diminished risks to noise induced hearing loss, however, most employers and assessors miss one of the most important principals of the Regulations -controlling noise at the source. The Regulations have incorporated the word ‘control” for a reason; they give greater priority to the reduction or elimination of noise though technical or organisational means, as opposed to merely providing hearing protection to employees.
But why can’t we just rely on hearing protection when noise levels are high?
The answer is quite simple: as with the COSHH Regulations, not all personal protection equipment (PPE) is fail-safe, numerous issues have been encountered with the use of hearing protection:
- Poor selection
- Lack of comfort
- Incorrect fit and incompatibility with other safety equipment
- Poor maintenance or excessive wear
- Continual removal by employee for communication purposes
- Poor training on use
- Over-protection (resulting in employee isolation or being unable to hear safety alarms)
Most companies may think that these issues do apply to them, but our experience has shown that they are real and prevalent.
So how do we control noise?
Well there are various methods available:
- Change the process (using different materials or work methods)
- Introduce job rotation
- Change of machinery (purchase low-noise machines and ensure all new machinery complies with the Regulations)
- Change the workplace design (fit absorptive materials on walls, position machines further apart and towards the centre of rooms)
- Improve existing machinery design (reduce impacts and air turbulence, fit new tooling)
- Installation of acoustic enclosures around noisy equipment or processes
- Installation of acoustic screens or barriers
- Provide refuges for employees (noise reduced enclosures)
- Provide damping on machine or floor surfaces
- Installation of vibration isolation equipment
- Installation of silencers to reduce fan or air turbulence noise
- Install active noise control (cancellation of noise)
Noise control is not necessarily difficult or expensive and most techniques can be carried out ‘in-house’. The HSE have published two very helpful guidance books on the subject. The first book, Controlling Noise at Work (L108), explains the regulations in detail and provides practical tips on hearing protection and noise control. The second book, Sound Solutions (HSG138), includes sixty case studies on how companies have reduced noise at work.