Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most commonly encountered occupational diseases. Induced deafness is generally preventable. Historically, a significant percentage of the workforce has been shown to have lost hearing, due to exposure to noise. A related issue is that of tinnitus, which involves apparent ringing in the ears.
Prolonged exposure to noise above certain level increases the risk of hearing loss significantly. Hearing damage is usually irreversible. The so-called “army deafness” cases in the 1990s saw over 15,000 noise induced hearing loss claims.
Certain workplaces have a significant amount of noise. In other cases, the noise may be more marginal such as in a busy public house or restaurant. There are regulations in relation to noise in the workplace. There are exposure action values. These are levels of daily noise exposure and peak levels, above which action is required to be taken to reduce the risk. Exposure limit values are the level of daily noise exposure and of peak sound exposure, which must not be exceeded for an employee.
Where employees may be exposed to noise above a certain level, employers must make an appropriate risk assessment. Suitable and appropriate noise risk assessment must be undertaken. It must identify employees who are subject to noise exposure above the lower exposure values.
Employers must have regard to noise levels, the extent or exposure to noise and the relevant action limits. The statutory noise exposure values are measured in terms of daily or weekly exposure and the sound pressure.
- The actual noise position must be observed, measured and recorded. The employer must assess and, if necessary, measure the levels of noise to which workers are exposed, giving particular attention to the:
- level, type and duration, including impulsive noise,
- the exposure limit value and the exposure action values,
- effects on workers from particular risk groups,
- effects from interactions between noise and work-related substances toxic to the ear, vibrations or warning signals and other safety-related sounds,
- manufacturers’ information on noise emission,
- alternative equipment that could reduce noise,
- noise beyond normal working hours,
- information from health surveillance, and
- availability of hearing protectors.
The employer must, in accordance with general principles of prevention, ensure in so far as practicable that the risk from exposure from noise is reduced to a minimum or eliminated. If risk assessment indicates that employees may be exposed to noise above the action value limits, preventative measures are required.
Employers must ensure that the risk from noise is either eliminated or reduced to a minimum. Where an upper action value is exceeded, the employer must establish and implement technical and organisational measures designed to reduce exposure. Preventative measures are required. The measures to eliminate the risk or reduce them must be set out. Professional advice must be sought and implemented as required.
As far as possible the risk factors must be removed at source or reduced to a minimum, taking into account:
- other working methods with less exposure,
- appropriate equipment choice,
- workplace design,
- training, consultation and participation of the workers,
- use of shields, enclosures, sound-absorbent coverings, dampening and isolation,
- workplace and equipment maintenance, and
- organisation of work, schedules and rest periods.
Environmental Changes Required
Noise sources must be ascertained, reduced or eliminated. Noise reduction measures may include the use of particular materials, which are quieter. Electronically controlled noise reduction mechanisms may be required to cancel out noise. Preventative pre-emptive measures must be undertaken.
Alternative methods of work, which reduce or eliminate exposure to noise must be considered. Information may be provided by manufacturers in relation to equipment, which may assist. Alternative equipment may be available to reduce noise. The organisation of work may facilitate a reduction in noise levels. The rotation of staff and the use of sound absorbent material may assist the position.
Mollifications may be possible to particular equipment or to the overall work environment. The layout of the workplace may be required to be revised. Measures may be taken to reduce noise, such as by shields, sound absorbent surfaces and other modifications to the environment.
Other Required Steps
Employers must provide hearing protection to workers exposed to noise if other measures cannot deal with the risk. They must ensure that the protection is present and that it is used. The ear protectors chosen must be appropriate to the nature of the noise and its duration. They must be maintained, properly stored and must be available. Protection equipment must be replaced and updated as required.
In limited cases, the HSA may grant exemption from the above provisions, where the use of personal hearing protectors would cause greater risks to safety, than not using them. This is primarily for the purpose of the music industry
Signage must be displayed. Areas must be cordoned off to prevent unauthorised entrants where required. Adequate information must be given to employees. There must be consultation in relation to the implementation of measures.
Employers must provide sufficient training relating to noise exposure to employees who are potentially affected. It must deal with the nature of the risks, the measures taken, the correct use of ear protectors, entitlement to health surveillance, appropriate practice and procedures.
Employees must not be exposed to levels above the exposure limit value at all. The noise exposure limit values, which must not be exceeded, is principally measured with reference to a daily or weekly exposure of 87 decibels (dB), taking into account any attenuation from hearing protection.
Places exceeding the exposure action values should be marked appropriately, and have restricted access. Areas must be cordoned off to prevent unauthorised entrants where required. If there may be noise above the limit value level, mandatory warnings are required. Signage must be displayed.
The employer must make individual hearing protectors available to workers. The use of hearing protectors is mandatory where the noise level is above the upper action value.If the limit value is exceeded, immediate action must be taken to reduce exposure, identify the reasons, and amend procedures and organisation, so as to prevent recurrence.
The EU standardised provisions in relation to machinery and CE designation require certain standards in respect of noise to be adhered to. Machinery must comply with certain noise standards. The must be certified compliant by the requisite CE mark. The standards require information in relation to correct use and objectively defined outputs.
The aim of the EU Directives is to provides for four types of action
- harmonisation of noise emission standards;
- harmonisation of conformity assessment procedures;
- harmonisation of noise level marking;
- gathering of data on noise emissions.
The manufacturer or the person placing the equipment on the market or putting it into service in the Community must ensure that:
- they have drawn up a declaration of conformity certifying that each of item of equipment is in conformity with the provisions of the Directive;
- they have affixed an indelible legible marking to each item of equipment indicating the guaranteed sound power level.
Labelling is compulsory for all items of equipment covered by the Directive. It must include the CE marking visibly, legibly and indelibly affixed to each item of equipment and details of the sound power level in dB(A) in relation to 1 pW.
Employers must provide health surveillance where the risk assessment discloses the possibility of hearing loss and damage, as a result of workplace operations. Where the relevant exposure or action values have been exceeded, steps must be taken with reference to the particular values concerned, and to the relevant guidelines.
Those who have been exposed to noise above the upper exposure action values have the right to have their hearing checked, while those whose exposure to noise is above the lower exposure action values have the right to preventive audiometric testing.
Where hearing damage is diagnosed, a doctor should assess whether it is likely to be the result of exposure to noise at work. If this is the case:
- the worker must be informed,
- the employer must review the risk assessment and measures to reduce risks,
- the employer must take into account medical advice, including the possibility of re-assigning the worker, and
- the employer must continue surveillance and review the health of any worker similarly exposed.
There have been numerous cases of employer liability for deafness, where reasonable standards have not been adhered to and/or older safety regulations regarding use, maintenance or ear protectors were not followed. A claim for compensation for hearing loss requires a demonstrable loss of hearing for the claimant’s particular age.
The army deafness claims led to legislation in 1998, which provided for the assessment of hearing damage. This legislation attempted to standardise the basis of hearing loss assessment, in accordance with a scale relative to age and gender. The so-called Green Book provided for, must be used unless other more appropriate systems can be shown be applicable. The quantum levels in the Green Book were updated by the courts to reflect changes in the general levels of compensation.
References and Sources
Safety, Health and Welfare and at Work Law in Ireland 2nd Ed 2008 Byrne Ch 27
Safety & Health Acts Consolidated & Annotated 2013 Byrne
Health, Safety & Welfare Law in Ireland 2012 Kinsella Ch. 3
Health & Safety: Law and practice 2007 Shannon
Health & Safety at Work 1998 Stranks Ch.6
The Health and Safety Authority www.hsa.ie
Health and Safety Executive (UK) www.hse.gov.uk
Health and safety at work, 2017 29th edition Author BAMBER, L.,
Corporate liability: work related deaths and criminal prosecutions 3rd ed. Author FORLIN, G.
Health and safety at work: European and comparative perspective Author ALES, E., ed.
Health and Safety Law 5th Ed 2005 Stranks
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2016 (S.I. No. 370 of 2016)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2016 (S.I. No. 70 of 2016)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) Regulations 2016 (S.I. No. 36 of 2016)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 (S.I. No. 445 of 2012)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) Regulations 2010 (S.I. No. 176 of 2010)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I. No. 732 of 2007)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007 (S.I. No. 299 of 2007)