EU set to transform UK noise regulation

The implementation of the updated Noise Directive will set new standards for protection from noise in the UK in the workplace as the new Environmental Noise Directive aims to implement a comprehensive noise policy.

Excessive noise is being tackled on two fronts – as environmental nuisance where environmental health departments take the lead in regulation and as a hazard to health where the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) sets the standards.

Noise policy across Europe and in this country is the subject of major changes. Following the introduction of the recent Environmental Noise Directive, Member States of the European Union will have to assess noise exposure levels for their populations, to carry out noise mapping for local areas and prepare action plans.

On the health front, The Noise at Work Regulations 1989 set out measures to reduce and control noise levels at work to cut the risk of damage to employees’ hearing. The regulations, which represent the law as its currently stands in the UK, have two action levels related to daily personal exposure averaged over an eight-hour day - 85dB(A) is the first action level and 90dB(A) is the second. There is also a peak action level of 140dB(C).

A new European regime will soon come into force setting more stringent limits on noise in the workplace.

Negotiations are currently under way in the EU on the final details of a new Noise Directive that lowers the action levels to 80 and 85 dB(A) and introduces a limit value of 87dB(A), above which exposure (taking hearing protection into account) will be prohibited.

Adoption of this Directive is expected before the end of this year and all member states, including the UK, will then have three years to implement it in their own legislation (ie by late 2005). The HSE will be producing new guidance to accompany this new legislation.

Pubs and clubs
Nights out in Britain may be less noisy in future as these Regulations apply to such premises.

Research* published by the HSE identifies the need to educate owners and employees on noise levels and noise exposure in pubs and clubs.

Conducted by the Health and Safety Laboratory, the review concluded that there is definite potential for harm from the effects of noise to employees - although it is not possible to establish the number of individuals whose hearing will be impaired as a result of this noise exposure.

While recognising the difficulties associated with trying to control noise in pubs and clubs, the HSE says that the general public also needs to be aware of the risks from loud amplified music of the risks from exposure.

Andie Michael, HSE’s Noise Policy Adviser, said: “There are two issues here. The first is protecting hearing of those at work, for which there is already existing legislation and guidance that employers should be following. It applies as much in pubs and clubs as it does in a noisy factory. The second is protecting the public. The report is saying that people who spend a lot of time in places that play loud amplified music should know that they risk damaging their hearing.”

HSE is considering how to take the recommendations forward in partnership with other Government departments and industry and employee representatives.

There are ways of protecting workers in pubs and clubs from noise eg by arranging for the places where people work to be “buffered” from the noise, by restricting time spent in the noisiest areas, and by wearing hearing protection.

The particular concerns of the music industry have been recognised during the negotiations on the new Directive. It is possible that the music and entertainment industry will have a two-year transitional period in which to take account of the new legislation, but negotiations are continuing on this issue.

The Directive does not apply to members of the public who choose to go to noisy venues.

Noise pollution
Earlier this year, Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, speaking at the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health, said that there was still a lot to do, particularly about noisy neighbours, to make Britain a quieter place. He quoted the findings of research carried out by DEFRA on how noise was changing the UK, what noises people see as problems, and what can be done to minimise them.

Among findings of the research, which included a survey of more than 5,000 people, were that 21% of respondents reported that noise spoilt their home life to some extent, with 8% saying that their home life was spoilt either “quite a lot” or “totally.”

The research found that only a small proportion of respondents who were bothered by noise from neighbours complained to the environmental health department of the local authority, which DEFRA suggests may mean that noise complaint statistics may greatly under-estimate the extent of community dissatisfaction.

In that regard, statistics from the CIEH for England and Wales covering noise complaints per million of the population show that domestic complaints rose from 2,264 in 1990/91 to 5,001 in 2000/01 with construction/demolition accounting for 325 in 2000/01 and industrial/commercial recorded at 1,381 in the same year.

A welcome move on the industrial front is that the new Environment Agency NetRegs website for SMEs provides advice for managers of construction operations under Pre-Planning - Noise Guidance. This reminds operators of their obligations under the Control of Pollution Act 1974, Section 61 of which allows the local authority to give its prior consent for works on construction sites. Applications have to indicate steps the builder intends to take to minimise the noise created.

Innovation and research
An innovative scheme to tackle noisy neighbours and other nuisance noise won the annual John Connell Award, established by the Noise Abatement Society to encourage local authorities to develop schemes to raise awareness of noise problems and to mediate and settle conflicts arising from noise complaints.

Under the Doncaster scheme persistent disturbances are recorded with digital equipment and the recordings analysed in a laboratory where they can be played back to complainants, the noise makers, and, if necessary, magistrates. Those creating the noise can be confronted with an objective demonstration of the impact of their behaviour on others.

Peter Wakeham, Director for NAS, commenting on Doncaster MBC’s “sound lab” system, said that it was “one that all councils should seriously consider adopting as it can both significantly improve the service offered to local people while saving council money.”

Research on environmental noise is continuing with the award of a second three-year contract, together with an option for a further two year extension, to Casella Stanger, to provide a research and advisory service to the Noise and Nuisance Policy team at DEFRA.

In addition to continuing to provide the wide range of technical support that it did during its first three-year term, the company will be closely involved with the preparation required to enable the Environmental Noise Directive to be implemented. In addition, Casella Stanger will be carrying out verification and validation work on the results of the noise mapping study currently being undertaken by DEFRA.

*Copies of Noise levels and noise exposure of workers in pubs and clubs – A review of the literature Research Report 026 ISBN 0 7176 2571 0, price £15 are available from HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 2WA Tel: 01787 881165; Fax: 01787 313995. HSE’s Research Reports are available on the HSE website at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrhtm/index.htm


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