Noise - Frequently Asked Questions

What is an action level? Why is there more than one level set down?

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 action levels for continuous Noise:

When the Physical Agents (Noise) Directive is implemented in February 2006, the action levels will be lowered; the first action level will be 80 dB(A) and the second action level will be 85 dB(A). There will also be a limit value of 87 dB(A), above which no worker can be exposed (taking hearing protection into account).

How do I calculate personal exposure for individuals?

You will need to get a competent person to measure the noise and determine the daily personal noise exposure (LEP,d) during a noise assessment. They will measure the sound pressure level at the different places the person works and for the different tasks carried out during the day. The LEP,d is calculated from these values and the time spent in each place or at each task. Information on how to carry out a noise assessment can be found in the HSE publication L108 Reducing Noise at Work.
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Why should an employer spend money on noise reduction – especially to save only a few decibels?

The Noise at Work Regulations 1989 require the reduction of noise exposure. Reducing noise levels at source provides the most effective way of protecting workers’ hearing as well as providing numerous other benefits to companies. Noise can create stress, and can be a safety hazard at work, interfering with communication, acting as a distraction and making warnings harder to hear.

Because noise is measured on a logarithmic scale, a reduction in noise of 3 dB(A), which seems small, is in fact the equivalent of halving the intensity of the noise. This would mean that the person could work for twice as long at the reduced level and have the same daily personal noise exposure as before.

We are buying machinery (new or secondhand). If it is noisy, should we reduce it to the lowest level before putting it into use?

Suppliers of new machinery are under an obligation to design and construct their products to produce as little noise as possible. The case is similar with secondhand machinery, although the situation will depend upon when the machinery was first supplied, and whether it has been substantially refurbished.

Even if you have bought in the quietest machinery possible, you still have duties to reduce the risks to your employees, so further action may be required.

The main requirements apply where employees’ noise exposure is likely to be at or above any of the action levels. In these cases you must, so far as is reasonably practicable, reduce their exposure to noise in ways other than by providing hearing protection.

The best and most obvious way of reducing exposure is by controlling the noise at source, i.e. making the machine as quiet as possible. Information on how to control noise is available in the free HSE leaflet Noise at work – advice for employers and in more detail in the books Sound Solutions and Reducing Noise at Work
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Why do employers have to reduce noise at source when workers can wear hearing protection?

The various types of hearing protection (earmuffs, ear plugs, semi-inserts) are not the best forms of protection because they rely on individual workers using the equipment correctly. They can also fail or be inefficient without this being visibly obvious. The effectiveness of hearing protection is reliant on its condition and whether it fits correctly.

When do I need to provide hearing protection? What kind?

You are required to provide your employees with hearing protection if they ask for it and their noise exposure is between the first and second action levels, i.e. a LEP,d of 85-90 dB(A) (or 80-85 dB(A) under the new Directive).

You must provide your employees with hearing protection and make every effort to ensure that they use it properly when their noise exposure exceeds the second action level, i.e. a LEP,d of 90 dB(A) or more (or 85 dB(A) under the new Directive).

The main types of hearing protection are:

You should use the results from your noise assessment and the information from hearing protection suppliers to make the best choice of hearing protection. It must reduce employees’ noise exposure to below 90 dB(A) (or 85 dB(A) under the new Directive), be suitable for the employees’ working environment, and be compatible with other protective equipment used by the employee (e.g. hard hats, dust mask, eye protection).

Wherever possible, provide your employees with a suitable range of effective hearing protection so they can choose the one that suits them best. Some employees may prefer a particular type, or may not be able to use some types of hearing protection because of the risk of ear infections.

This information comes from the free HSE leaflet Noiseat work – advice for employers. Detailed guidance on the use hearing protection can be found in the HSE book Reducing Noise at Work.
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What happens if an employee refuses to wear hearing protection?

You need to ensure that employees use hearing protection when required to do so. You may want to include the need to wear hearing protection in your safety policy and put someone in authority in overall charge of issuing it and making sure replacement hearing protection is readily available. You may also want to carry out spot checks to see that the rules are being followed and that hearing protection is being used properly.

If employees persistently fail to use protectors properly you should follow your normal company disciplinary procedures.

You should ensure that all managers and supervisors sets a good example and wear hearing protection at all times when in ear protection zones.

What about self-employed people?

If you are self-employed you need to take the same action to protect yourself as an employer takes to protect employees, and to use protective equipment on the same basis as employees. Employers also need to take action to protect those who are employed by them to work at home.

What legislation covers noise exposure of members of the public e.g. from construction works?

The Noise at Work Regulations 1989 deal only with people at work. However the duties set out in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 are more general in scope and mean that employers need to take action if noise creates a risk to people other than workers. As an employer, where people who are not at work are exposed to noise risk by your activities, you will need to do what is reasonably practicable to safeguard their health and safety by action similar to that taken for your employees.

Local authorities can issue a notice, under Section 60 of The Control of Pollution Act 1974, to construction/maintenance operations, containing conditions for work which may include noise requirements.

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How do workers become deaf? How long does it take? What are the effects?

Deafness is caused by damage to the structures within the cochlea (For an explanation of the ear go to Useful Links). This damage results in loss of both frequency sensitivity and increase in hearing threshold i.e. noises need to be louder to be able to hear them.

Sometimes after being subjected to loud noises people experience deafness that goes away after a while. This is called temporary threshold shift. But after sudden, extremely loud explosive noises, or more usually prolonged lower level exposures to noise over a number of years, permanent hearing loss can occur. It may be that the damage caused is only noticeable when it becomes severe enough to interfere with daily life. This incurable hearing loss may mean that the individual’s family complains about the television being too loud, the individual cannot keep up with conversations in a group, or they have trouble using the telephone. Eventually everything becomes muffled and people find it difficult to catch sounds like ‘t’, ‘d’ and ‘s’, so they confuse similar words. Social situations can become very difficult.

Age and general fitness are no protection from hearing loss – young people can be damaged as easily as the old. Someone in their mid-twenties can have the hearing that would be expected in a 65 year old. Once ears have been damaged by noise there is no cure.

Hearing loss is not the only problem. Tinnitus or ringing in the ears may be caused as well. Most people suffer temporary tinnitus from time to time, often after a spell in a noisy place, but with noise-damaged ears it can become permanent. Some people find it more distressing than the hearing loss.
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Are there any methods of treatment for hearing related conditions ie tinnitus?

Permanent hearing damage, which can be caused immediately by sudden, extremely loud, explosive noises, or gradually due to prolonged exposure noise, is thought to be incurable.

Tinnitus (ringing, whistling, buzzing or humming in the ears) is another possible problem arising from excessive exposure to noise. This distressing condition can also lead to disturbed sleep. Unfortunately there is no treatment for noise-induced tinnitus.
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