Hearing and noise matters
09 February 2015
Emma Shanks, senior scientist with the Noise & Vibration Team at the Health & Safety Laboratory examines noise at the workplace and resources for workers and employers.
Noise is part of our everyday lives. At work we often take precautions when dealing with tangible hazards, such as chemicals. However, because noise is invisible - and because we are used to it and even expect it - many people don’t appreciate that noise can also be a significant hazard to both health and safety.
It can take years to develop a disabling hearing loss and, because hearing loss is also part of the ageing process, many people accept that it’s inevitable. Noise exposure also occurs outside the workplace, through our leisure activities and social lives. We become complacent about noise risks and although we know it causes hearing loss, we don’t think it will happen to us.
Sadly, by the time you notice there’s a problem it’s too late. You already have a disabling hearing loss. Most occupational health screening will only pick up the loss when significant damage has already occurred.
On average it takes a person 10 years to address their hearing loss. In 2011, 10 million people experienced hearing loss - that’s one in six people in the UK; 3.7 million of these were working age (16 - 64 years).
What we forget with hearing loss is that it isn’t just deafness that is the disability. The 'Hearing Matters' publication said: "Hearing loss has significant personal and social costs and can lead to high levels of social isolation and consequent mental ill health. It more than doubles the risk of depression in older people and children with hearing loss also have an increased risk of mental health problems. People with mild hearing loss also have nearly double the chance of developing dementia and this risk increases significantly for those with moderate and severe hearing loss. Hearing loss has a significant impact on education and employment.”
The extent of NIHL
It is difficult to quantify the extent to which workers are affected by Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL). According to ‘Controlling Noise at Work’, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance to the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, it is estimated that more than 2 million people in the UK are exposed to noise levels at work that may be harmful. The 2008/09 Labour Force Survey (LFS) showed that an estimated 17,000 individuals who worked in the previous 12 months believed their hearing problems were the most serious of their work-related illnesses. However, as NIHL is not a RIDDOR reportable occupational disease, the exact number of people who are injured or at risk is unknown.The cost of NIHL
Claims are rising and in 2012 alone AXA Insurance saw a 75% increase in the number of deafness claims. David Williams, managing director, Underwriting, AXA Insurance, noted: "The issue for British industry is that, as we have seen with other areas of insurance in the UK, lots of claims inevitably lead to higher premiums in order to cover the cost of pay outs. As British business struggles through a prolonged period of recession, the last thing they need is the added expense that this will bring.”Industry / sector examples
Noise is still a problem in many industries. HSE’s autumn 2014 'Think Health' campaign highlighted the issue of noise in the construction sector where NIHL is three times higher than the industry average. This campaign showed that whilst duty-holders thought that they were managing noise well, in reality there is still a reliance on hearing protection, rather than practical control solutions, with no discussions on its adequacy or suitability.
HSE-funded research carried out by the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) suggests that there are still high levels of noise exposure in the UK printing industry, despite a general reduction in noise levels over the last 25 years. Data gathered from a small sample of workers across a range of printing premises showed that 50% were exposed above the 85 dB(A) upper exposure action value (defined in the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005) and 43% were exposed between the 80 dB(A) lower and upper exposure action values.E-learning resource
Employers have a legal duty to protect their workers against the risks to both health and safety from exposure to noise and therefore they cannot shy away from their responsibilities. Compliance, control and management do not have to be difficult, yet the most simple noise controls in the workplace are often neglected. It is interesting to note that many of us instinctively manage noise in our personal lives: we retreat into a quiet room when we want peace and quiet; we add soft furnishings to make indoor spaces quieter; we find quiet ways of doing things about the house when we don’t want to disturb a sleeping child. So how do we ensure that good practice solutions for reducing noise at home are applied in the workplace?
HSL and 3M, with extensive knowledge and experience in the fields of hearing conservation, noise regulation, management, control, measurement, training and hearing protection, have combined their skills to produce a comprehensive but simple hearing conservation e-learning resource. This resource is designed to help users understand the issues associated with exposure to noise at work and identify what actions need to be taken to protect those at risk, in line with the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005. There are four modules which include exercises that will help identify practical actions for individual workplaces.
Module 1 – Hearing hazards and risks: It’s a legal requirement that everyone at risk of hearing damage from noise at work understands the risks. The starter module describes how we hear and the risks and consequences of harmful noise; the physical damage done to our ears, the symptoms and the handicap we experience. Hearing damage cannot be cured, but can be prevented if we recognise where the risks are and take action to mitigate them or protect ourselves. This module helps the user recognise the types of sound that can be harmful. It explains the relationship between noise exposure, the sound level in decibels and the duration of the sound. It also explains the measures required by law to assess for everyone at risk.
On completion of the module the user will be able to: Help others to recognise the causes and symptoms of hearing loss; say why hearing conservation matters to everyone; provide an overview of the science behind hearing and sound; gain a perspective on exposure levels.
Module 2 – Monitoring noise exposure and risk assessment: This module gives the user the simple tell-tale signs of noises that can be a risk to hearing, so they can identify who might be at risk and when and where a risk assessment is required. It includes a simple step by step process for performing a risk assessment, and explains what you need to do if they find legal exposure action and limit values are exceeded. It also raises the often forgotten issue of safety in noise and recognising the risks of missing essential warning sounds.
On completion of the module the user will be able to: Identify the tell-tale signs of noise; Explain what should be done if the exposure action values and exposure limit value are exceeded; Talk to colleagues about the effect that noise has on everyone; Undertake a risk assessment for noise exposure.
Module 3 – Noise control and hearing protection: The risk assessment provides the springboard for identifying where control is required and where it will have the greatest benefits. This module helps the user understand and use simple techniques to reduce personal noise exposure by reducing the level of the noise and the time each person spends exposed to the noise. It gives guidance on the proper use and selection of hearing protection where it is still required.
On completion of the module the user will be able to: Explain how they can affect noise around them; Identify noise controls that are effective: at the source of the noise; on its pathway to the person hearing the noise; and at the person hearing the noise; Employ simple noise controls in the workplace; Understand the use of hearing protection in the workplace.
Module 4 – Using health surveillance to influence behaviours: The final test of whether noise controls are working is health surveillance. This is an essential hearing ‘MOT’ required by law for each individual who is at risk from noise. For an employer it can identify those areas where risks remain and controls are not working. For the individual it’s a personal, confidential consultation about the health of their hearing. This module takes the user through the legal requirements, how often health surveillance is recommended and the practical aspects of what happens during health surveillance. The module shows how health surveillance can be used to check noise controls are robust and reliable and improve the health and safety culture.
On completion of the module the user will be able to: Explain health surveillance to colleagues; Discuss the use of health surveillance; Recognise how health surveillance can influence behaviour and productivity; Identify who should have health surveillance and how often. The hearing conservation e-learning resource will be available from the HSL products website from early February 2015 (www.hsl.gov.uk/products).
Hearing conservation and noise at work
In August 2012, after a day spent on the frontline with an HSE occupational health inspector, Judith Hackitt, chair of HSE, said in her blog: "What I saw last week was the extent to which longer term health issues tend to take second place to managing immediate safety risks. Things get put on a ‘to-do’ list but somehow never get done, leaving people at risk…”
It’s time for hearing conservation and noise at work to be viewed in the same light as those immediate safety risks. With an ageing population, initiatives to keep older workers in the workforce and industries where noise remains a challenge, actions, not ‘to-do’ items, must be taken. With some common sense, and a bit of imagination, most of us can achieve a quieter, safer and healthier workplace. Hearing damage is preventable.