The Control of Noise at Work Regulations were introduced to protect the hearing of employees in the workplace, but is it just more red tape?
The ear is an amazing instrument, able to distinguish the most subtle of sounds and also deal with very high sound pressure levels. Inside the ear is a small snail-shaped structure – the Cochlea, which is filled with fluid and thousands of minute hair cells. When sound is received by the ear, these hair cells vibrate at different frequencies and tell our brain what we are hearing. It’s a very clever device.
If we are exposed to excessive noise, some of these tiny hair cells can become damaged, and even die completely. The hair cells do not re-grow and we lose the ability to hear those frequencies properly for the rest of our lives. The most commonly affected frequencies by exposure to excessive noise are those at the upper end of the speech range; the ‘pssh, tsss,’ type noises that we use to identify words.
The effect on life can be detrimental – sufferers of noise induced hearing loss often find that when in a social situation they can appreciate the atmosphere, background music and that their friends are talking, but find it almost impossible to tell what they are saying. The difficulty in understanding speech, especially in noisy situations, can have a real negative effect on an individual’s life and wellbeing – and this hearing loss is something that cannot be rectified, but can be prevented. By the time you realise that something isn’t right, it’s too late.
Sometimes when the hair cells become damaged and no longer send the correct signals to the brain, we struggle to hear those frequencies and the brain replaces the expected signals with a constant noise. This manifests itself as a dull ringing in the ears, known as Tinnitus. The ringing in the ears can be sporadic or present all of the time, day and night. It can be loud or quiet, with gradual or sudden onset, but it is inescapable. There are treatments that can help alleviate the symptoms a little, but there is no cure. Tinnitus is perhaps the most unpleasant condition to arise from overexposure to noise in the workplace and there have even been instances of suicide linked to the condition.
Hearing damage from overexposure to noise is something that you do not want.
Fortunately, adherence to the Control of Noise at Work Regulations means that this hearing damage should be avoided. The Regulations stipulate that employers undertake a noise at work assessment where activities are of a noisy nature to quantify their employees exposure; this is usually done using hand held sound level meters and small Dosebadges or dosemeters that clip onto employees clothing during an assessment. The disruption to the normal working operation is therefore minimal.
If it is found that the noise environment is above those recommended in the Regulations (Action Values), there are steps that employers must take to safeguard their employees hearing. These include reducing the noise levels at source if practicable, enforcing the use of suitable hearing protection in appropriate areas, and having their employees hearing tested. The result is that the hearing of employees is better protected, and employers can be satisfied that they have taken steps to limit noise exposure.
Many ANC member companies can offer full noise at work assessments, advice on hearing protection and practicable remedial measures, as well as the audiometric (hearing) tests for employees.