Can tinnitus be caused by excessive noise in your workplace?
Tinnitus is caused by any trauma to the ear, whether at work or in your social life. Most people have experienced mild, transient tinnitus at some time in their life, but for some people this can become permanent and very distressing. Around 10% of people in the UK are thought to have mild tinnitus symptoms, while for around 1%, the sounds affect their quality of life. Your employer has an obligation to ensure that you are protected from the effects of high noise levels at work.
We talked to THSP Training Consultant, Mark Thornewill, about noise in the workplace.
Why does noise interest you, Mark?
“I spent many years working in a noisy environment servicing Army helicopters. In 1989, when the first Noise at Work Regulations came out, I was promoted to Warrant Officer II and was tasked with implementing control measures within the unit. I went to Cranfield University to do a course in Noise Measurement and became ‘hooked’. I have since undertaken the Institute of Acoustics course in Workplace Noise Measurement following the change in Regulations in 2005.”
What experience do you have of working in engineering?
“I joined the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers in 1975 and became an Aircraft Technician. During my 22 years’ service I worked in a variety of locations both in the field (literally) and in workshops undertaking major maintenance. Anything from pre-flight servicing to removing every component from the fuselage, including the tail boom, and reassembly afterwards. In my last few years in the Army, I was responsible for developing vibration analysis procedures for one particular aircraft type and recovery procedures for another.”
What does 90 decibels sound like?
There are some simple ‘rules of thumb’ which work well with noise:
- If you can hold a conversation at 2m distance, but the noise is intrusive, the level is around 80dB. This is the Lower Exposure Action Value (LEAV).
- If you need to raise your voice to hold a conversation at 2m, the noise is around 85dB.
- If you need to raise your voice to hold a conversation at 1m, the noise is definitely above 90dB.
How do you know if you need to do a noise survey?
“Regulation 5 of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 are quite specific.
Any employer who carries out work which is liable to expose any employees to noise at or above a lower exposure action value shall make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk from that noise to the health and safety of those employees, and the risk assessment shall identify the measures which need to be taken to meet the requirements of these Regulations.
In conducting the risk assessment, the employer shall assess the levels of noise to which workers are exposed by means of –
(a) observation of specific working practices
(b) reference to relevant information on the probable levels of noise corresponding to any equipment used in the particular working conditions
(c) if necessary, measurement of the level of noise to which his employees are likely to be exposed.
Also, if it’s noisy, it’s likely to vibrate; if it vibrates, it’s likely to be noisy.”
How do you carry out a noise survey?
“The process sounds quite simple – measure the exposure of operatives to noise in the workplace; but in practice, this can be complex and sometimes challenging. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
For example, if a person works at the same machine all day, in a fixed location, it may be appropriate to just measure the noise at that place and calculate the exposure.
On the other hand, an employer could have staff who move around a lot, work on several different items of equipment and undertake a variety of tasks. On these occasions employees are fitted with Personal Dose Rate Meters (PDRM or Dosimeters) at the start of the day and allowed to work as normal. At the end of the day the Dosimeters are collected, the data analysed, and solutions or recommendations suggested.
Equipment for measuring noise is very expensive and must be calibrated annually.”
Can you give an example of noise levels?
“Typical machinery used in manufacturing, such as power presses, produce noise levels in the region of 85–87dB; angle grinders, chop saws and sheet metal works can be significantly noisier, at around 98–103dB.
Windy drills may produce as much as 97dB and percussion riveting up to 117dB.
Welding operations can produce noise levels in the order of 90dB but the proximity of one workstation to another can increase this to 93dB quite easily.
Background noise levels in a machine shop are typically around 85dB however with the radio turned up so everyone can hear it may increase significantly.”
What control measures can be used?
“This is not an easy question to answer. The Regulations require the employer to reduce the noise level by any means OTHER THAN hearing protection, which is to be used as a last resort.
Each solution is unique to the circumstance however there are some simple measures which can be taken to reduce noise exposure.
- Line discharge chutes from automated machinery with rubber
- Ensure items being cut are clamped adjacent to the blade and also at the tail, to reduce vibration
- Avoid metal on metal contact where possible
- Keep machinery in good condition, reducing ‘play’ on worn areas or linkages
- Consider ‘low noise’ alternatives when purchasing replacement equipment
- Turn the radio down and provide repeat speakers at workstations
- Identify Noise Control Zones and enforce the use of hearing protection
- Educate your staff to look after their hearing.”
Are there any online resources that can help?
“The HSE’s website is extremely useful, the online exposure calculator is very handy.
Also available on the HSE website is L108, the ACOP for the regulations and a number of other guidance publications that can be printed off for employees.
The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) current strategy gives the same priority to health as it does to safety. This means that HSE inspectors may become more attentive to employee health and wellbeing, resulting in greater use of enforcement in this area.”
Thank you, Mark
If you need help with noise assessments, THSP can help! We have Institute of Acoustics qualified and experienced consultants who can carry out an assessment of exposure to noise in your workplace with the latest up to date equipment. Protect your workers’ hearing and safeguard your business from HSE enforcement notices.
To book an assessment, give us a call on 03456 122 144.
Download a free Avoid Hearing Loss poster here.