Legal Q&A: Controlling noise at work

Q Do the new Control of Noise at Work regulations 2005 apply to my place of work if it’s not a factory?

A Yes. Apart from limited exemptions, the regulations have universal application, relating to all employees at risk as a result of noise at work. The most obvious examples are employees working on factory production lines. However, employees working in the vicinity of equipment as diverse as electric lawnmowers, music speakers, and motorcycles may be at risk of significant hearing loss. As a general rule, if normal conversation cannot be heard clearly at a distance of one and a half to two metres, the noise level is likely to be in excess of the regulation limits.

Q When will our company have to ensure compliance with the new regulations?

A The regulations come into force on 6 April 2006 in most working environments, although in the music and entertainment sectors (ie, workplaces where live music is played, restaurants, bars, pubs and nightclubs), current legislation will apply until 6 April 2008.

Q How do the regulations alter existing statutory requirements?

A Noise levels are measured in db(A), or frequency-weighted decibels. Noise levels are then usually standardised over an eight-hour working day. The regulations reduce the lower exposure limits from 85db(A) to 80db(A) and the upper exposure limit from 90db(A) to 85db(A), thereby offering protection to a greater number of employees. Emphasis is placed on consultation with employees, which will need to be implemented by HR. The regulations require employees to be consulted on the risk assessment, measures taken to reduce noise exposure and personal protective equipment to be purchased, in addition to health surveillance and training.

Q If noise exists in the workplace, what steps must a company take?

A This depends on the level of noise present. Where there is a risk from exposure of employees to noise at work, an employer must either eliminate the risk at source or reduce it to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.

This might include purchasing new equipment, introducing job rotation, better working practices and equipment maintenance, sound insulation, suitable rest facilities and limits on noise duration.

If the noise exceeds the absolute maximum of 87db(A), it must be reduced immediately. Where work exposes an employee to noise at, or above, 80db(A), the employer must:

  • complete a risk assessment, identifying the risks to health and safety and measures to be implemented to comply with the regulations
    provide hearing protectors on request
  • operate suitable health surveillance where there is a risk to health
  • provide information and training to all employees who are exposed to the noise.

Where exposure cannot be reduced below 85 db(A), the employer must:

  • take steps to reduce noise exposure to the lowest level reasonably practicable
  • ensure personal hearing protectors are provided to all exposed employees, and that they are properly maintained and used – disciplinary action should be documented where employees contravene instructions and fail to wear such protection
  • demarcate affected areas as ‘Hearing Protection Zones’, ensuring that access is restricted and that protectors are worn.

Employees may legitimately complain of non-compliance with any of the above requirements. HR should alert the employee supervisor and the health and safety manager.

Q What documents will the company need?

A Retain all documentation, including the risk assessment findings and the measures taken to comply with the regulations. Health records need to be retained for all employees undergoing health surveillance. Where this identifies hearing damage, and the company doctor attributes this to occupational noise, a meeting will need to take place with the employee concerned, ensuring that they are advised of the results. Consider giving the employee alternative work.

HR will also need to retain up-to-date personnel files recording the training given to all exposed employees dealing with the risks from exposure; the measures taken to comply with the regulations; the various exposure limits; the findings of the risk assessment; the correct use, availability and provision of hearing protectors; the entitlement to (and outcome of) health surveillance; advice on safe working practices to minimise noise exposure; and why and how to detect and report signs of hearing damage.

Q Will HR have to retain such documentation for employees only?

A Not necessarily. The regulations state that the employer’s duties extend so far as is reasonably practicable to any person at work who may be affected by the employer’s work.

Peter Forshaw, partner, Weightmans

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