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Noise at work: topping the wrong kind of poll

27 October 2016

Many of us work in environments where noise is a daily hazard. Although changes in work patterns and the use of quieter and more efficient machinery have reduced noise levels in recent decades, HSM asks James Tingay, product development at Cirrus Research why it’s still a major occupational hazard that is attracting the attention of litigation lawyers.

In 2014, an estimated that 70,000 UK workers claimed for potentially damaging noise at work, securing an estimated £350million in costs and compensation for NIHL (Noise Induced Hearing Loss).

According to the Employers’ Liability Tracing office (ELTO) last year NIHL was number one in the top 10 table for claimants’ disease enquiries. A staggering 90.9% fell under NIHL, with mesothelioma coming in second with 3.1% of enquiries; albeit this particular seam of litigation opportunity has been well mined for some years now. NIHL accounted for a total of 188,673 enquiries to ELTO.

This trend shows no sign of abating and, coupled alongside the Brexit debate and the implications for our regulation-heavy industry, should we be expecting any changes that could affect the NIHL bottom line?

In the short term almost certainly no changes and even if we take the long view, as the UK was such an advocate for health & safety legislation within the EU it seems pretty fanciful to assume we will see a bonfire of H&S regulation two to three years down the line. As the UK is truly a leading light in the noise at work arena so it seems very unlikely that there will be a 'conscious uncoupling' of the UK legislative process when it comes to noise at work.

So, as it stands, we are faced with more of the same for most, if not all, of this decade. Even if the Government decides to tinker with noise at work regulations it is hardly going to be a priority on the legislative agenda when we have so many others more pressing issues such as free trade agreements to worry about.

Assuming we are working to the same noise at work legislation for the foreseeable future and the threat of NIHL claims is not going away, it is important to understand what you need to measure from the outset.

Consider how the standards require that noise exposure is measured and reported. Almost every occupational noise regulation requires that exposures are measured in terms of a time weighted average (TWA) over a standard working day. However, there can be subtle variations between standards, which can result in dramatic differences in the reported results.

An action level is basically a noise exposure level at which employers are required to take certain steps to reduce the harmful effects of noise on hearing. There are two main action levels for continuous noise: The lower exposure action value is a daily or weekly average noise exposure level of 80 dB, at which the employer has to provide information and training and make hearing protection available. The upper exposure action value is set at a daily or weekly average noise exposure of 85 dB, above which the employer is required to take reasonably practicable measures to reduce noise exposure, such as engineering controls or other technical measures. The use of hearing protection is also mandatory if the noise cannot be controlled by these measures, or while these measures are being planned or carried out.

Finally, there is an exposure limit value of 87 dB, above which no worker can be exposed (taking hearing protection into account).

Before you start noise measurements, you should be clear about whether the noise levels that you are about to record will be a true record of the worker’s exposure. Once you have carried out any noise measurements and identified any employees who are exposed to noise levels at or above the legal limits, how do you go on to protect them?

Protection is best achieved by controlling the noise at source by eliminating the source of noise exposure. Although, significant advances have been made that allow equipment to produce lower noise levels it’s might not be possible to completely remove it.

Replacing the noise hazard is the next step. Look at whether changes to consumable parts (such as saw blades, exhaust valves for compressed air, etc.) are possible and whether newer technology allows for lower noise levels.

Using engineering controls to reduce noise levels can provide the widest range of solutions - avoid metal-on-metal impacts and reduce drop heights for example —anything vibrating will transfer vibrations into the air, which we hear as noise.

And the last resort? most, if not all, occupational noise standards and regulations consider the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to be the final act and only to be considered where no other control will reduce the noise exposure to acceptable levels.