Across the UK, there are an estimated 23, 000 workers with work-related hearing problems. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), which is caused or made worse by being at work, is the most common form of hearing loss after age-related hearing loss, yet it’s 100% preventable.
As an employer, it’s your responsibility to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety from exposure to noise at work. Below, we’ll discuss the causes of occupational hearing loss, as well as which regulations you should take a closer look at.
What Is the Cause of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?
When we are exposed to sounds above 80dB (A), it can cause damage to structures in our inner ears. These sensitive structures (hair cells) are small sensory cells that send signals to your brain, which then turn into sound. However, once these hair cells are damaged, they do not grow back.
NIHL can be caused by a single extremely loud burst of sound, such as a gunshot or explosion, or by continuous exposure to loud sounds over an extended time, such as noise generated in a woodworking shop, which can lead to damage within the ear. This type of hearing loss is common in those working as musicians, construction workers, DJs and gardeners.
How Can Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Be Prevented?
Employers can help to reduce this health and safety problem by implementing several noise protection measures to protect their employee’s hearing.
- Assess the risks to your employees from noise at work and decide whether any further action is needed and how you plan to implement it.
- Take action to reduce the noise exposure that produces those risks. For example, can you choose quieter equipment or machinery?
- If you cannot reduce the noise exposure through other methods, provide your employees with hearing protection to protect their ears. These hearing protection tools, including earplugs and earmuffs, need to give enough protection so that sounds are below 85dB (A) once they reach the ear.
- Ensure that the legal limits on noise exposure — called exposure limit values — are not exceeded. These are 87 dB for daily or weekly exposure and a peak sound pressure of 140 dB.
- Employees must understand the risks they may be exposed to, so you should provide your employees with further information and training on what the noise exposure risks are and what you, as the employer, are doing to prevent this.
- Finally, it’s the employer’s responsibility to carry out health surveillance where there is a risk to health. This involves ensuring employees have a regular hearing test. Ideally, you should start health surveillance before people are exposed to noise (such as for new starters or those changing jobs), to establish a baseline. However, it can be introduced at any time for employees who are already exposed to noise.
Subsequently, this health surveillance will warn you when employees might be suffering from early signs of hearing damage, which will allow you to do something to prevent the damage from getting worse. It will also prompt you to check that your workplace control measures are working.
Approximately 70 new claims for work-related hearing loss are filed every year, but by following these regulations, not only are you looking out for your employee’s health, safety and wellbeing, but you’re protecting your business too.