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By Peter Wilson, technical director of Echo Barrier
Most workplaces expose us to noise, but some environments are a lot louder than others. Here Peter explains why employers have a responsibility to treat the issue of noise seriously, particularly on construction sites, in factories or for those operating heavy machinery.
There will always be a certain level of noise in the workplace, but for some, the possibility of being exposed to excessive and uncomfortable levels of noise is much more likely.
If people are having difficulty hearing what others say or must shout to be understood at a distance of one metre, noise levels are likely to be damaging.
And the levels of noise from loud machinery, drilling and demolition over a prolonged period can also cause considerable disruption.
The crisis of noise
Being exposed to noise pollution can affect your health and wreak havoc on various body functions.
Physical and psychological health consequences of regular exposure to consistent elevated sound levels can cause hearing impairment, tinnitus, hypertension, ischemic heart disease, annoyance, and sleep disturbance.
Noise is also a huge source of stress.
Temporary hearing loss can be caused by exposure to loud noise for a few hours. Fortunately, hearing is usually restored after a period of time away from noise.
Permanent hearing loss occurs after the ear has been continually exposed to excess noise. Hair cells gradually harden and die, making it increasingly difficult to recover.
As a rule, noise upwards of 85 decibels is deemed harmful.
Construction workers are at serious risk because the equipment they use regularly is above this limit. Forklifts emit sounds of 90 dBA, while hammer drills reach 120 dBA. Even electricians, who are considered one of the quieter trades, are surrounded in environments over 85 dBA.
The amount of harm done by this depends on several factors, including how long you’re exposed to the noise for, how often, and whether you are wearing any kind of hearing protection.
Breaking the rules
Recent data revealed that 19% of staff age 21 or under admit not wearing hearing protection at work, compared to 12% of older workers.
The picture was even worse in the construction industry where 24% of young workers were not wearing hearing protection, compared to 13% of workers over the age of 50.
Hearing loss due to noise is fastest during the first 10 years of exposure, making hearing protection especially important for young workers.
Once individuals realise they are losing their hearing, it’s too late; it’s gone forever.
So why aren’t young workers wearing hearing protection?
Could they be under the illusion that they are not susceptible to noise damage?
Or perhaps it’s lack of proper training?
If this is the case, the industry needs to do far more to educate their new recruits and insist on health and safety compliance.
After all, the buck stops with them.
A duty of care
The Noise Regulations 2005 requires employers to prevent, or reduce, risks to health and safety from exposure to noise at work.
The regulations require employers to do several things, including taking action to reduce noise exposure wherever possible.
This also applies to the music and entertainment industry and covers events such as loud concerts.
First and foremost, an employer should carry out a thorough risk assessment which will allow you to identify the areas where you need to act.
If the noise assessment identifies exposures to noise between 80dB(A) and 84dB(A), then hearing protection must be provided by the employer, employees should be told it is available, they should be informed about the dangers of excess noise, and then it is up to them if they choose to wear it or not.
This is covered by Regulation 7 in the Noise Regulations.
However, it is mandatory from 85dBA upwards.
In short, once the noise levels hit 85dBA, then there is no choice but to wear hearing protection and it is no longer optional – wearing it is compulsory and both the employer and employee have no choice in this.
If an employee refuses to wear hearing protection, there are limits on how far an employer can accommodate. They can offer alternative styles of protection or move them to a lower-noise job. What an employer cannot do is allow someone to continue to work knowing they are at risk.
Take your responsibilities seriously
The law says that every employer has a duty of care to protect employees from suffering harm in the workplace.
If you fail to foresee the harm that could be caused by a job, or to ensure that staff were protected from damaging noise levels, you could be said to have failed in your duty of care.
What’s more, if a worker believes their hearing problems could have been caused by negligence in the workplace, they may be able to claim compensation – and this could cost you thousands.
You also risk financial penalties if you fail to minimise disruption from noise to the general public.
Acoustic barriers can be the solution to protecting other individuals who may live or work in the vicinity of your noisy construction site.
They typically reduce noise by 90-97%, and are lightweight, weatherproof and adaptable to any setting.
As well as protecting workers and nearby residents, noise barriers can also help to improve your company reputation because it shows you are taking the consequences of noise seriously, and it reflects steps taken to care about the local community and the wellbeing of its people.
As well as noise barriers, you can consider a low noise purchasing policy for machinery and you can offer staff regular hearing checks and health reviews to ensure you are maintaining your duty of care.
Some 17,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, ringing in the ears or other ear conditions caused by excessive noise at work and the HSE estimates that more than two million people in Great Britain are regularly exposed to unacceptable levels of noise at work.
Meanwhile, noise-induced hearing loss is the second most common reason for employers’ liabilities claims for occupational health.
This isn’t something you can have a bury-your-head-in-the-sand attitude to.
By law you must assess and identify measures to eliminate or reduce risks and take simple actions to keep people safe.
Echo barrier systems make noise management simple, fast and highly effective. Barriers are flexible, provide exceptional acoustic performance and are easy to store, transport and fit.
For more information about echo barrier visit www.echobarrier.co.uk
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