Workplace noise: minimise the risk of harm and penalties 


Chris Callander spoke to Prof. Keith Attenborough, Education Manager at the Institute of Acoustics, about the harm workplace noise can cause to staff, and found out what an employer must do to protect its workforce.

Chris Callander: What are an employer’s obligations when it comes to protecting staff from damaging noise exposure in the workplace, and how are these governed?

Keith Attenborough: Excessive long-term workplace noise exposure causes deafness, tinnitus and other types of damage. Also, noise at work can interfere with communications, making warnings harder to hear and reducing people’s awareness of their surroundings, leading to safety risks involving injury or death. Employers have general and specific obligations in respect of protecting their workers from health risks of excessive noise exposure according to The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (CONAWR).

The general duties of an employer are to:

· Eliminate risks from noise exposure, or where this is not practicable, reduce them to the lowest level reasonably practicable

· Assess and, if necessary, measure the levels of noise to which workers are exposed

· Consult with employees and

· Eliminate or minimise any risks to health due to noise exposure

The specific duties depend on the levels of noise to which workers are exposed. The legislation specifies lower and upper exposure action values for the average daily (or weekly) noise exposure. For exposures above the lower action value and below the upper action value, an employer must make personal hearing protection available and provide information and training to employees about the risks resulting from exposure to noise. The information should include how to recognise hearing damage, what is involved in noise exposure assessments, the correct use of hearing protection and safe working practices to minimise noise exposure. For exposures above the upper action value, an employer must ensure that personal hearing protection is used, carry out appropriate organisational and technical measures to reduce noise exposure (in addition to providing hearing protection), designate and label hearing protection zones and arrange mandatory hearing tests.

CC: What are the implications for a business that fails to adequately monitor its working environments, resulting in staff being adversely affected by workplace noise?

KA: If an employee proves that their hearing loss results from a breach of an employer’s duties under CONAWR, they may make a claim for compensation under the Common Law tort of negligence. Typically, each year the insurance industry pays out about £70m to settle hearing loss claims. Although appropriate insurance will cover such claims, there are uninsured costs associated with the time spent by management in preparing to defend a claim. Moreover, insurers may insist that an employer acts in such a way as to minimise claims. If they are not satisfied that this is being done, they will increase premiums and, in extreme cases, may refuse to provide cover. Apart from resulting in compensation claims, breach of The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 is a criminal offence liable to prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive.

CC: How can a manufacturing business assess the noise in its workplace and ensure it is done in accordance with the legislation?

KA: To meet the duties imposed by CONAWR, an employer needs to know who is at risk and the level of that risk. They need to formulate a plan to tackle noise problems by identifying what is causing the risk (what processes, machines, etc.) and determining priorities for action. The key to satisfying the requirements is an adequate Noise Risk Assessment.

Often noise risks are regarded as difficult to deal with, and the measurement equipment is relatively complex to use, so many businesses turn to an outside agency to construct a risk assessment. However, significant savings could be made if the process is carried out in-house. The Institute of Acoustics (IOA), the UK professional body for those working in acoustics, noise and vibration, offers a Certificate of Competence in Workplace Noise Risk Assessment. This provides education and training on carrying out workplace noise assessments in a competent manner, as required by CONAWR. Information regarding the course is available on the association’s website.

CC: What are the next steps if a risk assessment identifies noise exposure over the legal limits?

KA: Formulation of advice on the best forms of mitigation of problems exposed by the risk assessment requires a higher level of expertise than imparted by the IOA Certificate, and an appropriate expert should be involved. A list of consultants is available through the IOA website.


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