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Are you listening?

30 September 2019

The latest webinar from Health and Safety Matters is brought to you in association 3M. Mohammed Saleem (Sal) explores noise-induced hearing loss and asks if your workers are protected.

FIVE PERCENT of the world population are known to suffer from disabling hearing loss, which is a loss of 40 debacles in the better hearing ear.

Around 23,000 people in the UK suffer from new and longstanding work-related hearing problems, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)1. There has been just shy of 1400 new claims between 2008 and 2017 and just less than 1% of these were from women.

In the entertainment and music sector, there has been a definite increase of awareness. 

Sal says, “Keeping in mind that our retirement age is getting further and further away from us, is is not going to be long before people are going to have to work up until the age of 70 - perhaps beyond. So, we do need to make sure that we keep our ears working in the right order.”

The human ear has a huge range of sensitivity, for example the noise of a jet taking off could hurt our ear, but we can also hear a slight noise such as a pin dropping on the floor – we can pick up sound from 20 Hz up to 20 kHz, although we are not very good at picking up sounds at these extreme ends of the frequency spectrum. The speech frequency range stretches from 500 Hz to 4 kHz. The webinar explores hearing and science of it in much more detail.

Tell-tale signs that your hearing is not working as is should, includes having to ask people to repeat themselves, muffled sounds and having to turn up the volume on your TV.

Health effects

Tinnitus is when you hear an annoying ringing or buzzing sound in your ear. It can interfere with concentration and sleep, when it is particularly more noticeable at night when there are no other sounds around you to mask it. 

There are other noise-induced health effects such as irritability, lower morale, reduced productivity and concentration, fatigue and stress. 

Sal asks how you can protect yourself, “There are regulations in place to make sure the worker remains protected. First and foremost is the Control of Noise at Work Regulation 2005. There are other associated regulations such as European PPE Regulation, which deals with certification of the products placed on the market. There is also the PPE Use Directive, which provides guidance on correct selection and usage or any Personal Protective Equipment and the final one is the Guidance Document that provides information on how to select, use and maintain your hearing protection.”

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations set action and limit values for noise in the workplace. 

Lower action value A daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 80 dB(A) and a peak sound pressure of 135 dB(C) 

Upper action value A daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 85 dB(A) and a peak sound pressure of 137 dB(C) 

Exposure limit value A daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 87 dB(A) and a peak sound pressure of 140 dB(C) 

The action levels are used to determine which of the duties outlined in the regulations are applicable, whilst the limit values must not be exceeded under any circumstances. 

Where noise levels reach the lower action value employers are required to: 

• Undertake a suitable and sufficient risk assessment • Make hearing protection available on request 

• Provide employees and their representatives with information, instruction and training. 

Where noise levels reach the upper action value employers are additionally required to: 

  • Reduce exposure to noise to as low as is reasonably practicable by implementation of a programme of organisational and technical measures 

  • Provide hearing protection where levels cannot be reduced by other means 

  • Define hearing protection zones 

  • Carry out health surveillance (where needed). 


The PPE Directive provides information on the use and selection of products. PPE must be appropriate for the risks involved and fit the wearer correctly and comfortably. The employer must inform the worker of risks against PPE and shall arrange training

The PPE Regulation came into force in April 2019. It's Regulation rather than Directive. 

Sal says, “With the Directive you can amend it to allow for any national variation, but with Regulation you have to implement the piece of legislation as it stands without any changes whatsoever. The key point with the Regulation is that hearing protection has been redefined as harmful noise and so has been elevated into the same risk category as respiratory protection, for example.

“Like respiratory protective equipment, hearing protection is now subject to the mandatory annual audit requirement.”


Prevention is key

It's good practice to have a hierarchy of control, starting withelimination. If you can eliminate the noise hazard in the first place, then that is the favoured approach. If not, look at ways of substitution. Are there quieter machines? Can you useengineeringto isolate the noise using enclosures or barriers? Otherwise think about options such as job rotation and training, which are administrativeissues.

Last, but not least in the hierarchy of control is Personal Protective Equipment. “In reality, PPE is the last resort, but very often it is a blended approach,” says Sal. “So you need to go through the hierarchy of control and look at what works and include where it is impracticable to engineer the sound out, you need to consider suitable personal protective equipment.”

Many employers rely on personal HPE (Hearing Protective Equipment) as a primary means of noise control in the workplace. There is a plethora of hearing different types of hearing protection available on the market ranging from ear plugs – disposable or reusable, to ear muffs that are over the head, attached to the helmet or behind the neck.

The workplace is a dynamic environment and there are lots of things going on, so it is key for workers to remain connected with their immediate environment, so there are many factors that you need to consider when considering hearing protection, and this will come from the noise risk assessment that you carry out, to determine how much protection you require. They also need to be suitable for the work being carried out, and be compatible with other PPE. 

Sal says, “It is really important that you validate the fit of the hearing protection. We all know that the real world attenuation based on many studies os often lower than the laboratory data, and this is particularly true of ear plugs.”

Fit testing is a simple and reliable way to accurately quantify the level of protection that each individual worker will receive from their HPE in practice. Equipment such as the E-A-Rfit Dual-Ear Validation System from 3M can test the effectiveness of earplugs or earmuffs while they are being worn, giving accurate results in seconds.



Are there any recommendations that employers test the hearing levels of new staff so that the base line of hearing is recorded prior to employment commencing?

It is always best practice and it is a standard policy to have a hearing check for a new hire, especially when the individual will be working in a noisy environment. So it is crucial to have a fresh base line for a new hire. There is also advice from the regulators that they should be monitoring those who are exposed to high noise environments.

Would you give any recommendations for hearing tests after certain times in noisy job roles?

While an individual during their workplace might be protected, the employer may not have any control whatsoever on what happens outside of the workplace, so if you are a Formula 1 enthusiast, or go to rock concerts, then your hearing will be temporarily damaged. So, in my opinion, the best time to take a measurement is first thing Monday morning, to allow for any shift from activities over the weekend.

Are personalised earplugs better protection than disposable earplugs?

Custom moulded earplugs are part of a range of hearing protectors available. You can achieve the same level of attenuation from conventional hearing protection devices, and in some cases you can achieve better.

Is a fit test required for muffs, or just for earplugs?

Fit testing is beneficial for all types of hearing protection. It should be seen as part of the overall training and education awareness, to ensure that the worker understands the importance of it, and compatibility issues.

In regards to the recent tragic accident in Wales, where two rail workers were killed because it was thought that they could not hear the train due to hearing protection, what are your thoughts on how this could have been prevented?

This was a very tragic accident, and our hearts go out to those affected. There are reports in the paper, but nothing has been confirmed as investigations are taking place, there is one school of thought that the two effected were wearing hearing protection, which may have contributed to the incident. The workplace is a dynamic environment and maintaining situational awareness is key. There are devices on that market that can improve situational awareness – for example if a vehicle is moving. 

You can listen to the entire webinar on demand. Visit https://events.streamgo.co.uk/Noise-Induced-Hearing-Loss

Mohammed Saleem (Sal) is a senior technical specialist at 3M EMEA. For more information, visit www.3m.co.uk