Workplace noise-induced hearing damage and hearing loss is a preventable condition that affects many Australian workers.
Workplace hearing protection is key to reducing noise-induced hearing damage in the workplace.
Too much noise in the workplace can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss or tinnitus—ringing in the ears. Hearing damage can occur from extended exposure to noise or exposure to very loud impact or explosive sounds.
Long term exposure to loud noise is the most common preventable cause of hearing loss.
While high noise levels in the workplace can cause injury to workers, harm can extend beyond permanent or temporary loss of hearing. Harmful noises and noise levels can also be an underlying cause of other health conditions such as stress, increased heart rate and hypertension.
Workplace safety is further compromised when distracting sounds cause miscommunication among workers which can lead to serious accidents and even death in the workplace.
According to Safe Work Australia, noise-induced hearing loss is a high occupational disease indicator.
Between 28–32% of Australian workers are likely to work in a workplace where they are exposed to loud noise at work.
Workplace noise-related injuries are most common in the manufacturing and construction industries with technicians and trades workers, machinery operators, drivers and labourers most exposed.
Model WHS Regulations for workplace noise
In the model WHS Regulations the exposure standard for noise involves two measures regarding exposure and noise levels.
- Australian workers can’t be exposed to workplace noise levels above 85 decibels over an eight-hour shift. For reference, sheet metal workshops typically produce noise levels of 90 decibels.
- Australian workers can’t be exposed to a workplace noise level above 140 decibels. Peak noise levels greater than this usually occur with impact or explosive noise such as sledge-hammering or a gunshot. Any exposure above this peak can create almost instant damage to workers’ hearing. For reference, a rivet hammer generally produces 120 decibels.
According to Australian workplace health and safety compliance laws, risks from workplace noise must be eliminated or minimised so far as is reasonably practicable.
Ideal workplace noise levels
If your workplace requires high concentration or effortless conversation, the ideal workplace noise level should be kept below 50 decibels.
If your workplace is routine, fast-paced and demands attentiveness or if it’s important to carry on conversations, the ideal workplace noise level should be kept below 70 decibels.
The model Code of Practice: Managing Noise and Preventing Hearing Loss at Work contains a Noise Ready Reckoner (Appendix C). You can use this to calculate a worker’s total noise exposure when they have been exposed to a range of noise levels through the day.
Hearing loss in Australian workplaces
There were 65,300 accepted workplace claims for deafness in Australia between 2001 and 2015. This was an average of 4,700 per year.
35% of these claims were made by workers in the manufacturing industry while 18% came from construction.
The primary mechanism that led to deafness was long-term exposure to sounds arising from working inside.
Workplace noise-induced hearing loss can’t be cured and it worsens as noise exposure continues.
Workplace health and safety obligations
Under the model WHS Regulations, a business must ensure the noise a worker is exposed to at the workplace doesn’t exceed the exposure standard for noise.
Business must provide audiometric testing to a worker who is frequently required to use personal hearing protectors to protect them from hearing loss associated with noise that exceeds the exposure standard.
Designers and manufacturers of plant machinery and equipment must ensure there is as little noise emitted as possible. They need to provide information about noise emission values, how noise emissions were measured and operating conditions used to measure noise emissions.
To ensure a safer workplace, you need to take requisite steps to protect your workers and visitors from possible hearing injuries and health risks.
- Conduct a workplace noise assessment
How noisy is your workplace? It’s difficult to make the correct decision to eliminate or lower the risk workplace hearing injuries and health risks without first being aware of noise levels.
The potential for noise to be hazardous in the workplace is not always obvious. The effects of long-term exposure are cumulative and workers may carry out a number of noisy work activities that over time expose them to hazardous noise.
A business must identify hazardous workplace noises in consultation with your workers and their health and safety representatives.
Conduct a structured and comprehensive workplace noise inspection to determine the sources and levels of noise. A sound level meter and workplace safety experts can help you pinpoint the different machines and tools that emit high levels of sounds, as well as determine the specific areas where damaging noise is present.
You should also review available information regarding noise levels from manufacturers or suppliers of plant and equipment used at the workplace.
Information and advice about workplace noise hazards, risks and solutions relevant to particular industries and work activities is available from regulators, industry associations, unions, technical specialists and health and safety consultants.
You can use the results of the completed assessment as a basis in creating plans or specific policies or plans to eliminate the risks of noise-related workplace injuries.
- Determine which workers are affected by workplace noise
Based on the results of the inception and assessment, find out which workers are exposed to high noise levels in your workplace.
If a worker’s hearing has been affected by workplace noise and this has been attributed to a particular task, then a hazard may exist that could affect other workers.
When you see which workers are most affected and at risk by workplace noise, you will have an overview of where to prioritise your efforts in countering the risks of workplace hearing injuries.
Prioritising your efforts also helps you determine the resources needed and budget accordingly.
- Reduce or eliminate the source of workplace noise
When seeking to reduce or eliminate workplace noise, focus on its sources.
Eliminating the source of workplace noise completely is the most effective control measure. Can you plug electrical equipment into mains supply instead of using a noisy generator? Can you replace hand-held power tools with an automated process that doesn’t produce noise?
If you can't eliminate the noise in the workplace, aim to reduce it. Can you substitute noisy pieces of plant with less noisy ones? Can you move the equipment further away with the use of extension cords, additional welding leads, or longer air hoses? Is there a way to reduce or muffle the sound emitted from workplace machinery and equipment? Can loud machines or equipment be replaced with quieter models?
Be aware that actions to eliminate or minimise workplace noise may introduce new hazards, and risks associated with the new hazards need to be managed effectively.
Cost cutting and tight budgeting may make it difficult to achieve the necessary changes in your workplace equipment to eradicate disturbing noise.
- Ensure workers use personal protective equipment to protect their hearing in the workplace
If you cannot restrict or eliminate the sources of noise in your workplace, the use of protective first aid equipment for the ears should be compulsory.
Workers will be protected from any type of hearing injury by using ear plugs or ear muffs when they are inside critical noise areas in your workplace.
It’s important to realise that hazardous noise in the workplace doesn’t just cause hearing loss. Hazardous noise can also destroy the ability of hearing clearly and communicating effectively.
If using personal hearing protection such as ear plugs or ear muffs in your workplace, you’ll need to introduce an alternative method of communication – such as using hand signals.
This ensures workers can effectively interact with each other and avoid miscommunication that can cause major incidents.