Noise is bad for your health

While it has been long known that noise in the workplace has serious health implications, the recent guidelines published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) have gone further. New evidence reveals how noise is one of the top hazards to both physical and mental health in Europe. Launched in October in Switzerland to countries and stakeholders, the guidelines identify the levels at which noise becomes hazardous to health. It also sets out a rigorous framework in which to take action to reduce exposure.

The new guidelines

The WHO has produced noise guidelines in the past, but there are five significant developments in this version.

  • It provides stronger evidence of the metabolic and cardiovascular effects of noise.
  • The guidelines include some new noise sources including wind turbines and leisure noise, in addition to noise from road, rail and aircraft.
  • Using a standardised approach for the evidence to be assessed.
  • In the review of the evidence, it clarifies the relationship between noise exposure and adverse health implications.
  • It considers how indicative long-term average noise exposure is to predicating poor health outcomes.

HSE regulations

In Britain the risk of noise at work is regulated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which brought in the Control of Noise at Work regulations in April 2006. These provide some useful guidance but focus mostly on the risk to hearing due to excessive noise, rather than looking in depth at other physical and mental problems as the new WHO guidelines do.

Employer duties

Under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, employers must take steps to prevent or at least reduce the risk of harmful exposure to noise at work. As an employer, the measures to be taken include the following:

  • Carry out a thorough assessment of the risks of noise at work to your employees
  • Take what action you can to reduce that exposure
  • If exposure cannot be reduced to safe levels, hearing protection must be provided
  • Check the legal limits on noise exposure and make sure they are not exceeded
  • Provide your employees with any necessary information and training
  • If there is a risk to health, carry out surveillance

Exposure limits

The HSE regulations state that different actions must be taken at different exposure levels, relating to both the average daily and weekly exposure limits and the maximum levels.

The lower exposure action values are:

  • Daily or weekly exposure of 80 decibels (dB)
  • Peak sound pressure of 135dB

The upper exposure action values are:

  • Daily or weekly exposure of 85dB
  • Peak sound pressure of 137dB

Exposure levels must not exceed:

  • Daily or weekly exposure of 87dB
  • Peak sound pressure of 140dB

What harm can noise do?

Several of the adverse health implications caused by exposure to excessive noise include:

  • Hearing impairment and hearing loss
  • Tinnitus (a ringing or other noise in the ears)
  • Increased blood pressure and tiredness in pregnant employees
  • Possible implications to hearing in the unborn child because they obviously cannot be issued with ear defenders
  • Increased risk of accidents as a result of not hearing instructions or warnings
  • Stress
  • Raised blood pressure and hypertension which increases risk of heart attacks

Do you have a noise problem in your workplace?

Some of the signs which may indicate a noise problem in the workplace include:

  • Intrusive noise, such as a busy road, for most of the day
  • Regularly needing to raise your voice to have a normal conversation with someone no more than two metres away
  • Working in a known noisy environment such as a construction site or factory
  • The use of noisy tools and machinery for over half an hour each day
  • Impacts or explosions regularly taking place
  • Experiencing muffled hearing at the end of the day, even if this is only temporary

What action can you take to control the risks?

After carrying out a thorough risk assessment of the noise levels in your workplace, your next step is to take action. There are several steps you can take, including:

  • Use quieter tools and machinery, having a low noise policy for all future purchases
  • Reduce vibration by damping or isolating
  • Use enclosures, barriers or screens to block sound
  • Position noise sources away from workers
  • Use materials in the building to absorb noise
  • Limit time spent in noisy areas
  • Provide hearing protection and ensure this equipment is well maintained

 Ten of the noisiest jobs

  • Airport ground staff
  • Formula 1 drivers
  • Construction workers
  • Nightclub workers
  • Rock musicians
  • Farm and factory workers
  • Classical musicians
  • Commuters
  • Motorcycle couriers
  • Teachers or nursery workers


Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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