Sound measures for site workers

The construction industry is bound to be in the front line for enforcement with the amendment of UK noise regulations. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 lower acceptable noise levels in the workplace across the board.

Last year, Health and Safety Minister Lord Hunt launched the new regulations at the Sound Off conference at Earls Court. Speaking at the event Lawrence Waterman, Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) president, said: “Over two million workers in the UK are exposed to levels of noise which are likely to damage their hearing permanently. That’s why through new regulations and guidance, employers are being encouraged to tackle noise issues in a much more effective way.”

Employers have a legal duty to reduce the risk of damage to hearing – not an easy task in the ever-moving construction environment. The main requirements apply where noise exposure is expected to reach or exceed three action levels, and it is these levels which are to be lowered in the change in regulations.

Two of the action levels are values of daily personal exposure to noise, and these depend upon the noise levels in the working area and how long people are exposed to them. The new Lower Exposure Action Value (LEAV) will be lowered 5dB to 80dB for a daily dose and 135dB for impulsive noises, such as pneumatic drills and nail guns. The Upper Exposure Action Level (UEAL) will be lowered 5dB to 85dB for a daily dose and 137dB for impulsive noises.

The new regulations introduce a new concept: Exposure Limit Value (ELV) of 87dB for a daily dose and 140dB for impulsive noise. This is the maximum permitted noise level at the ear taking into account hearing protection. To put this all into context, a pneumatic drill operates at about 100dB and a petrol lawnmower between 85dB and 90dB.

Limited exposure

Employers are required to limit staff exposure to noise, especially above the UEAL and ELV, as well as providing adequate protection from hearing damage. Hearing loss caused by exposure to noise at work continues to be a significant occupational disease. Mike Shepherd, Head of the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) Noise and Vibration Programme Unit, said: “Recent research estimates that 170,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions as a result of exposure to excessive noise at work. The revised regulations are an important step towards reducing this figure.”

So what does a contractor need to do to comply with the law? The exposure of employees to noise may well be periodic, but the first step must be to arrange for a competent person to carry out noise assessments for the particular circumstances in the workplace.

Such an assessor would:

  • Identify workers at risk, which will also be those near where the noise emanates
  • Determine the daily personal noise exposure
  • Identify other steps required, such as noise control measures or hearing protection

That person should also keep a record of noise assessments carried out, regularly review those assessments and, where levels are likely to exceed 85dB, develop an action plan for introducing noise control measures to reduce noise to as low a level as practicable. Steps could include:

  • Specifying quieter plant and equipment when purchasing (not always possible where subcontracting)
  • Using dampening and other modifications, perhaps even isolating areas where plant and equipment are being used
  • Introducing different work patterns to reduce exposure to the operators and those nearby
  • Ensuring the quality of the plant and equipment used, and that it is properly maintained

In the construction environment, these steps are not as easy or straightforward to take as say in a factory. It is likely the risk assessments will focus upon individual power tools, plant and equipment, with monitoring of employees spending a long time around these items. Where employees are exposed to the UEAV, health surveillance measures will have to be implemented with regular hearing checks.

Whereas the current legislation focuses upon personal protective equipment, the new noise at work directive is more about reducing the noise at source, and the number of employees exposed.

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