Employers are responsible for the health of their employees at work, and this includes caring for their hearing. If a workplace has a high level of noise (including loud music in entertainment venues) it is essential that appropriate steps are taken to protect the hearing of the company’s employees. Failing to do this could cause permanent damage to their hearing and result in legal action being taken against the business.
Most jurisdictions, including the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK, have specific legislation that allows workers whose hearing has been damaged because of workplace noise to sue their employers.
A typical example of this is Section 113 of the Australian Capital Territory’s Work Safety Regulation which states: “This section provides that a person conducting a business or undertaking at a workplace commits a strict liability offence if the person does not undertake a number of specific actions in relation to noise management.
“The duty holder must properly maintain noise control measures at the workplace, give workers at the workplace information and training about noise control measures …and ensure that any personal hearing protectors given to a worker are used and maintained… (Noise management – duties of person conducting business or undertaking, worksafety.act.gov.au, accessed 10 May 2010)
The Evidence Against Noise is Overwhelming
Studies have shown that exposure to noise acts as a stressor, activating physiological factors that, over time, can produce adverse health effects. Although all of the effects and mechanisms are not clearly understood, noise can elevate blood pressure (BP) and heart rate (HR), and can produce both acute and chronic health effects.
A study of the effects of industrial noise on resting HR and BP in more than 3000 blue-collar workers found that following four hours of daily exposure to noise, the mean resting HR in male workers exposed to high levels of noise was higher than the HR in workers exposed to low levels of noise. (The CORDIS Study, Kristol-Boneh et al, 1995)
Another study compared 37 people exposed to noise in the workplace with 36 non-exposed workers and found that BP and HR were significantly higher in the individuals who had been exposed to noise.
In addition, 18% of the 37 exposed individuals had irregular cardiac rhythms (Effect of chronic and acute exposure to noise on physiological functions in man, Singh et al., Int. Arch. Occup. Environ. Health, 1982).
How to Identify Noise Problems in a Workplace
A comprehensive investigation should be conducted to identify sources of noise in a workplace. Begin with a walk-through survey to determine whether or not noise is a potential problem. Some indicators of potentially hazardous noise levels are:
- The noise is louder than busy city traffic,
- People have to raise their voice to talk to someone who is 3 feet (one meter) away,
- At the end of work period people have to increase the volume of their radio or TV to a level that’s too loud for others,
- After working for a prolonged period of time, employees find it difficult to communicate in a crowd or party situation where there are other sounds or many voices.
What Employers can do about Noise
There are a several measures an employer can take to reduce employees’ exposure to noise. These include:
- Redesign equipment and work processes so they are not as noisy – for example, by lining metal chutes and bins with scrap rubber conveyor belting.
- Stop the noise from reaching employees by moving noisy machines away from them, by building soundproof enclosures around noise-producing equipment, or by putting up a barrier between machines and operators.
- Reducing the time people are exposed to noise by moving them between noisy and quiet jobs so nobody is exposed to noise for too long.
Even ambient noise in offices can cause problems: “It’s also been linked with musculoskeletal problems, as a Cornell University study on office noise found that those working in noisy office environments can also be less likely to ergonomically adjust their workstations for comfort, which can contribute to physical problems.” (Stress Management, stress.about.com, accessed 10 May 2010)
A simple yet effective practice is to give employees a regular break away from the noise during their working hours.
This will help prevent prolonged exposure to damaging noise levels and will also help to show that the business is trying to look after its employees’ hearing, even if there is no direct action that can be taken to lower noise further.
Exerpted from a Suite 101 article by Philip Keeffe