Making a noise about noise
Noise, defined as ''unwanted, unpleasant and loud sound'', is an everyday fact for us at home or at work, but excessive noise over potentially short as well as long term exposure can lead to permanent damage/loss of hearing.
While regulations have been in place for decades to control noise at work, thousands of people in the UK are still estimated to be suffering from work-related hearing problems and it remains a significant occupational health issue.
Noise is regularly a component of user satisfaction/occupancy surveys too. It can often promote a culture or “vibrancy” around the office; it can also adversely affect work and concentration.
So what should you be talking up about your organisation and its management of noise?
1. What are the issues with noise?
Adverse noise levels can lead to temporary or permanent hearing damage/loss. This can be caused by either a prolonged exposure to noise over time and so gradual loss/damage or by very short term exposure to sudden extremely loud noise.
Exposure to noise can also cause tinnitus. The British Tinnitus Association describes this condition as “the sensation of hearing a sound in the absence of any external sound. With symptoms of tinnitus you may hear different types of sound, for example, ringing, whooshing or humming or buzzing in the ear. These can be continuous or they can come and go.” They also identify that, “About 30% of people will experience tinnitus at some point in their lives but the number of people who live with persistent tinnitus is approximately 10%. Tinnitus is more common in people who have hearing loss or other ear problems, but it can also be found in people with normal hearing.”
Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate 20,000 workers suffer with work-related hearing problems (includes workers with new and longstanding hearing problems, estimated using three years of the Labour Force Survey from 2014/15 to 2016/17).
2. How is noise measured?
Sound travels in waves and can be measured in frequency and amplitude. Amplitude (the forcefulness or sound intensity) is measured in Decibels (dB) and for the purposes of the regulations in the UK two measurements are used.
A-weighted (dB(A)) measurements are used to assess average noise level, adjusted to attempt to take into account the varying sensitivity of the human ear to different frequencies of sound. This is aimed to capture the amount of audible noise we are exposed to.
C-weighted (dB(C)) measurements are mainly used to cover peak or impact noises, this would include for example a gunshot, impact driver or other short, sharp loud noise. Such noise can have a profound and immediate effect on our hearing. C-weighted measurements are also used to help calculate the A-weighted noise reduction of hearing protection using the single number rating method.
Your working environment and the type of activities occurring within will influence the type and strategy for assessing your employee noise exposure levels. This will also determine whether any issues you may be having are a nuisance type situation or require action in line with regulation.
3. Noise at work, what are the regulations?
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 place a duty on employers to reduce risk to their employees by controlling the levels of noise they are exposed to during work.
The exposure limit values and action values in section 4 of the Regulations cover lower and upper action levels and exposure limit values:
- The lower exposure action values are:-
(a) Daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 80 dB (A-weighted); and
(b) Peak sound pressure of 135 dB (C-weighted).
- The upper exposure action values are:-
(a) Daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 85 dB (A-weighted); and
(b) Peak sound pressure of 137 dB (C-weighted).
- The exposure limit values are:-
(a) Daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 87 dB (A-weighted); and
(b) Peak sound pressure of 140 dB (C-weighted).
This section has no associated Explanatory Memorandum
Additionally the regulations state, “where the exposure of an employee to noise varies markedly from day to day, an employer may use weekly personal noise exposure in place of daily personal noise exposure for the purpose of compliance with these Regulations.
The Control of Noise at Work 2005 Regulations are applicable “where work activities expose people at work (your employees or other workers affected by your work activities) to risks to their health and safety from noise.”
The Control of Noise at Work 2005 Regulations do not apply “where people who are not at work are exposed to risks to their health and safety from noise related to work activities; however, the general duties of section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 may apply in such cases.”
4. How do you manage noise?
For most office type environments, other than “nuisance noise” it is unlikely noise levels will be such that actions under the noise regulations will be required. Where specific equipment does generate high levels of noise (plant room, process/manufacturing areas for example) you should assess these to determine whether these are likely to cause people to be exposed to excessive noise. For example:
- At 80dBA (daily or weekly average exposure) - employers must assess the risk to workers' health and provide them with information and training. Hearing protection must also be provided if requested by employees.
- At 85 dB(A) (daily or weekly average exposure) - employers must provide hearing protection and enforce hearing protection zones.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), depending on the level of risk, identify you should:
- Take action to reduce the noise exposure; and also
- Provide your employees with personal hearing protection.
Other duties under the Regulations include the need to:
- Make sure the legal limits on noise exposure are not exceeded;
- Maintain and ensure the use of equipment you provide to control noise risks;
- Provide your employees with information, instruction and training; and
- Carry out health surveillance (monitor workers’ hearing ability).
5. What other effects can noise have in the workplace?
Not all noise is bad for us. Conversations, music (as appropriate and applicable), celebrations and even spontaneous meetings can help create a vibrant and productive environment. As recognised in the latest Leesman research (Leeman25), noise (at 74%) comes 6th on the list of important physical features at work. It further identified that those “highly dissatisfied” and “dissatisfied”, outnumbered those who were happier with the noise levels within their organisation.
So what are the consequences of those loud colleagues, sneezes, unanswered phones, traffic or irritating equipment whines? Some of the range of research suggests:
- A constantly whining fan or “clunking” motor can cause more than a little distraction – and once someone else points this out, it becomes contiguous too.
- Other people’s conversations are not only naturally hard to block out (or join in with) but can significantly reduce productivity.
- Prolonged exposure to certain sounds and/or loud noises can cause spikes in blood pressure and heart rate as a trigger.
- Increased blood pressure can also affect metabolism and lead to people either getting cross or getting tired, neither is positive!
- Too little noise can also be an issue, in some environments quiet rules, but then even relatively small amounts of noise can cause distraction – remember the effect that dropped pen had in a library).
At Assurity Consulting our team of qualified noise assessors would be more than happy to help you in assessing your current position with noise within your organisation. For more information on our services, please contact us on tel. +44 (0)1403 269375 or email us.