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Industrial Noise - The Severity of Noise as an Industrial Hazard is Underestimated

Published: 10th Nov 2010

Noise is probably the most widespread and underestimated of industrial hazards in the workplace and is a real risk to millions of people every day when they are at work.

As an employer you have a moral responsibility to ensure that your team are kept safe in their workplace. This may sound obvious, and most of us would see this as standard. But it is worth thinking about the legal challenges surrounding noise at work and the compliance legislation which looks to protect the employee. As an employer, if your responsibilities are not taken seriously, you too may also be open to risk. A different, but equally prominent risk - a legal one.

What if you don’t keep up with the ever changeable risk compliance legislation? New legislation now insists that everyone has duties and responsibilities regarding health and safety, from the worker to each contractor, from the architect up to the top boss. The implications for not following these guidelines should not be ignored nor disregarded. Failure to comply with the regulations could lead to legal action, meaning not just liability for compensation but also prosecution under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

One of the biggest risks we are exposed to in the workplace is noise, ranging from a construction worker surrounded by loud equipment, to a shop assistant in a store with background music. What we need to address is what makes noise in a workplace a danger and what measures are to be taken to reduce the risk of exposure, in turn preventing long term damage to the employees.

In Britain, more than one million employees are exposed to worrying levels of noise - and the louder the noise, the more damage it can cause. Is it simple to fix?

As employers, how can we ensure that we are responsibly caring for our staff, and adhering to legislation?

We must look first at assessing the levels of risk and the looking at solving this, in the most practical way, bearing in mind not all of us are working in a controlled environment such as an office. Imagine having a team on an oil rig or a construction site where heavy, noisy machinery is the norm. How do you ensure that everyone is protected? Do you just purchase ear defending equipment or is there more to it?

Once the safety of the employees is addressed, and we can confidently say that we have endeavoured to protect them, following the legislation and guidelines, there is the by-product of this operation: increased productivity.

It makes sense that addressing workplace noise and vibration issues is likely to ensure that the team is happier in their workplace, thus improving productivity, so it’s in everyone’s interests to do this.

First step to safe employees

General Health and Safety legislation covers all employers and workplaces. In the UK, The Control of Noise at Work Regulations, 2005, is a good guideline in the absence of local law. These regulations require employers to take action if daily or weekly exposure to noise is at or in excess of certain Exposure Action Levels.

There are specific steps an employer is recommended to follow in order to protect their staff:

• Conduct a Noise Assessment. This assessment should cover both loudness, {dB (A)}, and frequency, {Hz}, in order to plan the correct controls

• Take steps to prevent or control the risks. For example engineering controls through design and layout of the workplace or implementing procedural controls for employees affected by the noise

• Where possible eliminate exposure to noise at source - by changing the process or equipment

• Control exposure to noise - limiting time/duration of exposure by changing the process for the affected employees

• Provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) - consultation with your PPE supplier will quickly show that there are noise protection solutions for virtually all work situations

• Provide information and training to educate the workforce about dangers and required precautions

• Regularly monitor and review the effectiveness of the measures by measuring noise levels or conducting health surveillance, for example Employers need to take action if daily or weekly exposure to noise is at or in excess of certain Exposure Action Levels. These levels are referenced in the regulations in decibels (dB).

• The lower exposure action value is termed as daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 80dB (A), or a peak sound pressure/impact noise of 135dB (C)

• The upper exposure action value is daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 85dB (A), or a peak sound pressure/impact of 137dB (C) There is always an upper limit of exposure and there are levels of noise that must not be exceeded. These are called Exposure Limit Values and take into account reductions provided by hearing protection:

• Daily or weekly exposure of 87dB (A)

• Peak action level - peak sound pressure/impact of 140dB (C)

There is a general rule which can be used to simplify this and to put it into context. For example, the noise level is about 80dB (A) if people have to raise their voices to be heard at a distance of about one metre, and the noise level is about 90dB (A) if people have to shout to be heard at a distance of about one metre.

Risks

The risk to hearing is permanent damage. How quickly the damage displays itself is down to the nature of the exposure to noise. For example, exposures over a long period of time can cause hearing loss progressively.

By contrast, some damage can be caused immediately when exposed to peak sound waves produced by sounds such as explosions or cartridge operated tools.

Anyone can be exposed to excessive noise levels. Those working in noisy workplaces, factories, foundries, working with power tools, plant and machinery, and in noisy environments such as road works, airports and construction sites are among those most at risk.

Ongoing duties

Once a Noise Assessment has been completed it should not just be filed away, never to be seen again. It is the start of the process, not the end and should be used to assist the employer in reducing the risk of hearing loss and control noise exposure.

At the Lower Action Values, employers must:

• Assess the noise exposure

• Eliminate noise exposure at source or reduce to a minimum level

• Provide information, instruction and training on risks and how to minimise risk, including how they can obtain hearing protection

• Ensure that all necessary maintenance is carried out to hearing protection and equipment.

At the Upper Action Values, employers must do all the above and also:

• Mark hearing protection zones with prominent notices

• Provide everyone exposed with suitable hearing protection and ensure that it is worn

Risks in communications

Workplaces with heavy machinery such as construction may seem like more obvious places to experience high risk to noise, but there is a growing trend of risk of noise exposure within the telecoms sector, namely in call centres.

The telecommunications sector is booming and call centres are widespread now.

There are more than one million call centre operators in the UK who are at risk, which could lead to court settlements and compensation claims. To date there have been up to 300,000 potential victims and £10 million in out-of-court settlements have been paid worldwide.

The Call Centre Management Association cites this as a risk not be ignored and indicated that addressing this is the next significant challenge for managers and employers.

The risk these employees are open to is ‘acoustic shock’ and up until recently this perhaps hasn’t been given the respect it deserves. One of the main ways of solving this risk is training of employees to recognise the risk and how to report it. Training plays a vital here. In the UK employers have a duty under RIDDOR to report work-related injuries, but it is only possible if the employees recognise when an incident needs to be reported.

Again there are economic benefits to investing in health and safety training for staff: poor noise control = low employee performance = lower customer satisfaction = less profit. Something as common as a headache could be as a result of an acoustic incident. How much is a headache costing your business?

Safe place versus safe person

Employers must first try to eliminate or reduce exposure to noise by means other than hearing protection. PPE should be a last resort. This is to ensure that where the risks cannot be controlled by other means, PPE is correctly selected and used.

As with all control strategies, we should consider making the workplace safe before we start to look at getting safety equipment for the workforce, the so-called safe place strategy being preferable to the safe person strategy.

In all workplaces, it may be worth considering the design and layout of the premises. Perhaps there could be a designated area, away from the noise, in which the affected staff could take their breaks, ensuring that they have a complete rest from the exposure. The length of time that employees are exposed to such levels of noise is just as important as the volume itself. It is worth encouraging staff to take regular breaks and to spend time in designated quiet areas.

Quite often a lot needs to be considered and adopted as reducing noise in working environments often requires more than one solution, as noise will be produced from a number of sources.

Good practices reducing and eliminating sources of noise

There are many ways to reduce noise levels which are outlined below. A good guideline would be first to introduce methods and practices which protect the maximum number of exposed staff.

These may include:

• Implementing a quieter way or process of doing the work

• Using quieter pieces of equipment

• Introducing a low-noise purchasing policy for new equipment

• Improving maintenance procedures – good maintenance can reduce noise from friction and moving parts • Fitting silencers to exhausts

• Isolating or damping vibrating machinery by fitting anti-vibration mounts

• Adding sound absorbing material to vibrating panels to reduce vibration

• Enclosing noisy machinery

• Erecting barriers and screens around noisy machinery and processes

• Positioning noisy machinery and processes well away from workers

• Using sound absorbing materials to reduce reflection of sound within buildings

• Limiting access by keeping people out of noisy areas

• Limiting time spent in noisy areas

Selecting the PPE

Hearing protection should only be considered as a temporary measure, or as a last resort where a risk remains after steps have been taken to reduce noise levels. PPE should not be seen as a quick fix for a serious risk, or an alternative to controlling noise by technical and organisational means, but for tackling the immediate risk while other control measures are being developed. In the longer term, it should be used in tandem with technical and organisational changes and can even provide additional protection beyond what is achieved through noise control.

PPE should be made available to employees where they are exposed to levels of noise between the lower and upper action values. Where noise exposure exceeds the upper action value, employers must:

• Provide hearing protection to everyone exposed, and ensure it is used

• Identify Hearing Protection Zones with signs to show where hearing protection must be worn

• Provide information, instruction and training on how to use and take care of hearing protection

• Make sure that hearing protection is properly maintained

Ensuring that the right type of hearing protection is used is vital important. There are two main types: those which cover the ear and those which are inserted into the ear.

The Noise Assessment should indicate which sort of equipment is the most suitable. The reduction of noise when using these different types of equipment varies. As a rough guide, in-ear plugs can reduce the noise level by 10-15 dB (A) and ear muffs by 20-25 dB (A), provided that they are fitted correctly. For full guidance and advice, we must always consult our specialist PPE supplier.

Persuading staff to wear PPE

There are always reasons why an individual may choose not to wear protective equipment at work. Combating this, and addressing these issues when purchasing PPE and when training your staff to use it is vital. Perhaps the most common reason for non compliance is discomfort experienced when wearing equipment.

The following reasons may also be cited by your employees for non compliance to wearing PPE:

• Too hot

• Fit poorly

• Unattractive-looking

• Not easily accessible from the site of the work task

When supplying hearing protection, you must ensure that the equipment is compatible with other types of equipment already in use by the employee. Regular checks to ensure that the equipment is being used, used correctly, and in good working condition should also be a priority.

Important factors to consider in the selection and use of hearing protection include:

• Types of protector, and suitability for the work being carried out

Noise reduction offered by the protector, including taking account of ‘real-world’ factors, and also ensuring that not too much protection is provided • Compatibility with other safety equipment

• Pattern of the noise exposure

• The need to communicate and hear warning sounds

• Environmental factors such as heat, humidity, dust and dirt

• Cost of maintenance or replacement

• Comfort and user preference

• Medical conditions the wearer may have

PPE of the future?

A study conducted by Kimberly-Clark Professional in 2007 asked safety professionals which of the following innovations they would most like to see in the PPE of the future:

PPE that automatically adjusts itself to fit different body types - 36% PPE with adjustable heating or air conditioning systems - 19% PPE that sounds an alarm when it is taken off in a work area or job site - 9% Overalls and safety glasses that are so attractive they can be worn outside of work - 9% Overalls with integrated pockets for MP3 players or cell phones - 1% Don’t know/none of these - 27%

I think I’d have added to this list of options PPE that sounds an alarm when it is taken off in a work area or job site.

Hearing checks (health surveillance)

These should be carried out if there is a risk that noise levels could damage hearing. This will warn of any employees who may be suffering from early symptoms of hearing loss. It also allows employers to check that noise controls are adequate, and update the levels of protection accordingly.

Hearing checks should be conducted by a competent person where employees are regularly exposed to noise levels above the action values. Once the employer has a baseline figure for each employee it is important that regular checks are conducted on their hearing. The interval between hearing checks will depend on a number of factors, including the level of risk and whether the checks show that hearing loss is evident.

In order to establish a start point for datum, it is good practice to carry out hearing checks for new employees in noisy workplaces, and such a datum can be used to monitor any possible future loss or hearing ability.

Training

Ongoing training for existing staff and new starters is important. A designated member of each team could be responsible for communicating to the rest, perhaps via regular tool-box talks.

If equipment is used to protect staff, this needs to be done consistently and correctly across the board, with regular checks for adequacy, cleanliness and use.

Reviewing how changes have affected staff needs to be regular. This will be an indication of how well the noise controls are working in-situ. Spot checks of equipment and checks of the noise levels will demonstrate how effective these implementations have been and indicate management commitment. In summary, noise can be harmful, either causing short term or acute damage with excessively high levels of exposure to impact noise, or sometimes more progressive harm due to regular exposure to constant, relatively high noise levels.

As mentioned above, we should always try to make the workplace as safe as we can before we consider making the worker as safe as possible, by using PPE or other similar controls. When specifying PPE as the solution to a noise problem, always consult the specialist suppliers, to ensure the best solution in terms of both loudness, dB and frequency, HZ.

Author

Sinead McLoughlin, British Safety Services

British Safety Services (BSS) is an international consultancy offering advice and training on health and safety issues. Established in 1990, BSS has gained an international reputation as a major provider of high quality safety training that gets results. The team at BSS also provides guidance on all aspects of public safety specialising in workplace legislation and best practice.

BSS advise clients on their health and safety strategy and policy and assist in implementing procedures as required. By conducting training needs analysis, BSS help clients identify skills’ gaps in their workforce and then develop and deliver bespoke training programmes to meet these gaps, and to improve safety awareness and performance in the workplace. BSS have been successfully providing these services to companies throughout the world for almost 20 years.

BSS now have offices in Qatar, Dubai, Yemen, China, Libya and Algeria. With a team of specialist staff grounded in a detailed understanding of each country’s cultural issues as well as specific industry and country safety requirements. Instructors are all qualified to NEBOSH standards and have a minimum of 15 years experience.

Most clients are in high risk sectors such as construction, the nuclear industry, oil and gas, together with many service industries including schools and food. Clients include, Qatar Petroleum, Al Futtaim Carillion, Readymix Qatar, PDO, Sabic, Conoco Phillips, Canadian Nexan, Weatherford, Inpex Libya, Al Mansoori, Petro Bras and Misco Libya.

Anyone wanting to contact BSS should visit their website on www.bssukhse.co.uk or email Pat.McLoughlin@bssukhse.com www.osedirectory.com/health-and-safety.php

Published: 10th Nov 2010 in Health and Safety Middle East

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