Duncan Astil describes changes to the measures for controlling and protecting against noise in the workplace
07 April 2007
Exposure to loud noise can cause permanent hearing damage. Research estimates that over 2 million people are exposed to noise levels at work that may be harmful and that over 500,000 people may be suffering from hearing difficulties as a result of exposure to noise at work.
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 came into force on 6 April 2006 and will replace the Noise at Work Regulations 1989. The new regulations impose tougher requirements to protect both employees and others who may be at risk from exposure to noise at work.
As before the new regulations require organisations to take action in relation to noise at certain levels. These relate to the levels of exposure to noise averaged over a working day or week and the maximum noise which employees are exposed to in a working day. Both the current and new regulations prescribe levels of noise at which an employer should take action.
Under the previous Noise at Work Regulations, the lower action level of noise exposure was 85 decibels (dB) and the upper action level was 90 dB. The new regulations have seen a lowering of these action levels with the lower action level being a daily or weekly exposure of 80dB and the upper action level being a daily or weekly exposure of 85dB. These figures are 'A' weighted to try to reproduce the response of the human ear to noise.
In addition to these levels, the new regulations introduce a noise level which must not be exceeded and this is called the exposure limit value. This level is a daily or weekly exposure of 87 dB. It is worth noting that this limit does take into account the reduction afforded by hearing protection. The regulations also set peak sound pressure levels and limits for peak, explosive or impact noises, which are not filtered, are therefore 'C' weighted.
FMs need to prepare for these new regulations. If an organisation carries out work which is likely to expose employees to noise at or above the lower action level, it is required to carry out a risk assessment of the impact of that noise on the health and safety of its employees. In conducting the risk assessment, you should focus upon the levels of noise to which employees are exposed and on the practical measures that can be taken to protect them.
In carrying out the assessment, you may want to include: observation of working practices; assessment of equipment and associated noise; and assessment of level, type and duration of noise exposure.
The most important thing about the risk assessment is that it identifies what needs to be done to protect both employees and other persons at work from the noise. Organisations should keep a record of any significant findings that result from the risk assessment and also the measures that have been taken to meet the requirements of the new regulations. They should record in an action plan anything identified as being necessary to comply with the law, setting out what has already been done and what is planned for the future.
The risk assessment should be reviewed regularly and conducted again if a organisations has any reason to believe that the risk assessment is no longer valid.
Once the risks have been identified, you must ensure that the risks from noise exposure are either eliminated at source or where that is not reasonably practicable, reduced to as low a level as is reasonably practicable. In other words, the action taken should be in proportion to the risks.
Under the current law, you are only required to reduce the noise to the lowest level reasonably practicable but the new regulations impose a greater burden requiring you, where possible, to actually eliminate noise completely. This means tackling the immediate risk by identifying what is possible to control noise, how much reduction could be achieved and establishing priorities for action. Simply providing hearing protection will not be enough if it is reasonably practicable to reduce noise levels by organisational and technical measures.
In seeking to eliminate or reduce the noise levels and the exposure to employees, consideration should be given to: other working methods which reduce exposure to noise; choice of appropriate work equipment; and the design and layout of the workplace
Many of the legal duties on hearing protection have been carried forward from the 1989 regulations - hearing protection for employees is compulsory where they are most at risk and provide it on request when risks is lower.
If the risk assessment indicates that there is a risk to the health and safety of employees, you should carry out health surveillance, meaning regular hearing checks for workers, informing them of the results, keeping records and providing for medical referral if damage is detected.
Where employees are exposed to a noise which is likely to be at or above a lower action level, you should provide those employees with suitable and sufficient information, instruction and training.
The new regulations require organisations to actively assess the exposure to noise within their workplace and then adopt an action plan to implement measures to eliminate or reduce that exposure. They are concerned with controlling noise and not simply measuring it. The onus upon you is to establish good practice control measures that are applicable to their situations so that the health of employees is maintained. Hearing protection is the last option not the first.
Duncan Astill is an associate at Bevan Brittan LLP