The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 – which implement the European directive (2003/10/EC) – mean that as of yesterday (6 April 2006), it is no longer acceptable for employers to simply provide hearing protection for staff. Noise risk itself must now be managed and reduced.
As well as changing the emphasis of the regulations from the previous Noise at Work Regulations 1989, the action values (the levels of exposure where action needs to be taken by an employer) have also been changed. The eight-hour noise dose levels have been reduced, and new peak action levels have been introduced. Previously, there was only one peak action level at 140dB (see boxes below for summaries of the new action values).
Assess the risks
The latest directive on risk assessment of the noise places much more emphasis on the risk assessment of noise. The purpose of this is to make a decision on whether staff are at risk from exposure to noise.
The assessment does not have to be complex to assess exposure. Measurements are required if it is not possible to estimate the noise exposure. But many employers will wish to gain measurements to demonstrate that the exposure is below a certain value, therefore showing compliance with the regulations. The whole purpose of the risk assessment is to identify measures required to eliminate or reduce risks, so that control measures can be implemented and protection can be given to staff.
Industry standard control measures should be introduced as a matter of course to reduce the noise risk. This could involve reducing noise at source, controlling the path of noise, buying quiet machines or controlling exposure times. Many examples of practical noise control measures can be found on the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) website (www.hse.gov.uk), or within the HSE noise guidebook. If an employer is not competent in this area, they should use an ‘expert intermediary’, such as a consultant.
For higher risk cases, putting a plan in place, along with implementing technical and organisational noise-control measures is necessary.
Protection devices should be used as the initial way to reduce the risk to hearing, but these should only be used until the noise risk can be reduced by other control measures. The use of such aids should be mandatory for high-risk cases while working on technical and organisational control measures. The use of hearing protection devices should be managed with areas marked as hearing protection zones, instruction and supervision.
An employer should provide systematic audiometric hearing checks for employees who are regularly exposed to noise above the upper exposure action values, or those exposed to levels between the upper and lower exposure action values who might be sensitive to noise, for example, employees with existing hearing damage.
These checks can identify symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and show whether a noise control programme is failing. This is a way of using the results to review controls and further protect individuals. Records should, of course, be kept of employees’ audiometric assessments.
Any changes made to working practices or noise exposure need to be regularly reviewed, and a company policy will need to be put in place to reflect this.
The new regulations provide new emphasis on protecting staff at work, and new systems will need to be put in place to reflect this. A book has been produced by the HSE, with details on the policy changes and how to implement them. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005: Guidance on the regulations (HSE book L108, ISBN number 0717661444), is available from HSE books.
Tim Turney is product manager for noise instrumentation at Casella CEL and an affiliate member of the Institute of Acoustics. Queries may be made on 01234 844133, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org