Loud noise at work can damage workers 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 realize how impaired their hearing has become.

Case study
A risk assessment revealed that the noise level at the operator’s position of a metal cutting guillotine was very high, at 92 decibels (dB).

How was the problem tackled?

After taking technical advice, the employers ensured the guillotine was fully serviced and its hydraulics overhauled. In addition, a collecting tray was fitted with rollers and covered with carpet, to reduce the impact of falling offcut metal.
As a result, the noise level at the operator’s position was reduced by 9 dB to 83 dB which represents a reduction of 87.5%.

Why is dealing with noise important?

Noise at work can cause hearing damage that is permanent and disabling. This can be gradual, from exposure to noise over time, but damage can also be caused by sudden, extremely loud, noises. 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.

How can employers assess if they have a noise problem?

Employers will probably need to do something about the noise if any of the following apply:
  • the noise is intrusive – like a busy street, a vacuum cleaner or a crowded restaurant, or worse than intrusive, for most of the working day;
  • their workers have to raise their voices to have a normal conversation when about 2 metres apart for at least part of the day;
  • their workers use noisy powered tools or machinery for more than half an hour a day;
  • their sector is one known to have noisy tasks, e.g. construction, demolition or road repair, woodworking, plastics processing, engineering, textile manufacture, general fabrication, forging or stamping, paper or board making, canning or bottling, foundries, waste and recycling;
  • there are noises due to impacts (such as hammering, drop forging, pneumatic impact tools etc.), explosive sources such as cartridge-operated tools or detonators, or guns.
Situations where employers will need to consider safety issues in relation to noise include where:
  • they use warning sounds to avoid or alert to dangerous situations;
  • working practices rely on verbal communications;
  • there is work around mobile machinery or traffic.

How can employers control noise?

There are many ways of reducing noise and noise exposure. Nearly all businesses can decide on practical, cost-effective actions to control noise risks.

First, employers can think about how to remove the source of noise altogether, for example housing a noisy machine where it cannot be heard by workers. If that is not possible, they can investigate:
  • using quieter equipment or a different, quieter process;
  • engineering/technical controls to reduce at source the noise produced by a machine or process;
  • using screens, barriers, enclosures and absorbent materials to reduce the noise on its path to the people exposed;
  • designing and laying out the workplace to create quiet workstations;
  • limiting the time people spend in noisy areas.

Case study
A woman working in the textiles industry only realized something needed to be done about her hearing loss when, at the age of 40, she couldn’t hear the phone ringing any more.

What should have happened?

Such hearing loss could have been prevented in the short term with hearing protection. In the longer term, other ways of reducing exposure included quieter machines, maintenance, and changing job patterns.

Choosing quieter equipment and machinery

Employers should consider noise alongside other factors (e.g. general suitability, efficiency) when hiring or buying equipment. They should compare the noise data from different machines, as this will help them to buy from among the quieter ones.

When should personal hearing protection be used?

Hearing protection should be issued to workers:
  • where extra protection is needed above what has been achieved using noise control;
  • for short-term protection, while other methods of controlling noise are being developed.
Employers should not use hearing protection as an alternative to controlling noise by technical and organizational means.

Workers to whom you provide hearing protection should receive training in how to use it.

Detecting damage to hearing

If the risk assessment indicates that there is a risk to health for workers exposed to noise, they should be placed under suitable health surveillance (regular hearing checks).

Find out more
  1. HSE’s noise at work website 
  2. Napo in stop that noise