Employers have a legal duty to make sure your hearing is not damaged at work. They must also tell you about the risks from noise and take steps to protect your hearing. They can do this in the following ways.
- By selecting and using the quietest equipment available (such as generators with silencing kits fitted).
- By planning to do the work using the quietest methods available (such as cutting holes with rotary diamond cutters rather than chain drilling with hammer drills).
- By keeping you away from the noisiest activities, wherever possible.
- By giving you personal protective equipment (PPE).
Where the noise levels are not reduced enough using the first three methods above, your employer should provide you with hearing protection to further reduce your exposure.
There are two main types of hearing protection, each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
- These can be foam plugs (disposable or reusable), which may also be mounted to a band or cord.
- They must be fitted correctly so that they work properly, otherwise they have little effect.
- They must be fitted with clean hands, otherwise dirt can get into the ears and cause infection and other problems.
- You should be shown how to fit earplugs properly.
Hearing defenders (earmuffs)
- These cover the outer shell of the ear and need to make a tight seal against the head to work properly.
- They do not provide suitable protection when worn over long hair or glasses.
- They should be stored properly so they don’t get dirty or damaged.
- They must be kept clean and be cleaned after use, or they can become unhygienic.
- They can get hot and sweaty in hot weather, and can be uncomfortable to wear for long periods.
The daily exposure level is the amount of noise a worker is exposed to, measured over an assumed eight hour working day. The Noise at Work Regulations give two action levels that are the daily exposure levels at which your employer must take action. If the noise is above a certain level, the amount of time you are exposed to the noise must be reduced in line with this. The issue and wearing of PPE should always be considered as a last resort.
- Lower exposure action level. At noise levels of 80 dB(A) your employer should identify the noise hazard area (by the use of signage) and make sure that appropriate hearing protection is available. These are often called advisory hearing protection zones.
- Upper exposure action level. At noise levels of 85 dB(A) your employer should identify the noise hazard area (by the use of signage), provide suitable hearing protection, and make sure it is used correctly. These areas are often called mandatory or compulsory hearing protection zones (which means everyone must wear hearing protection).
If you have to raise your voice to be heard by someone 2 m away from you, then the noise level is in the range of 80 dB(A). If you have to raise your voice to be heard by someone who is 1 m away, then the noise level is likely to be in the range of 85 dB(A).
A hand tool giving 95 dB(A) at your ear would result in you reaching the 80 db(A) action level in just 15 minutes, and the 85 dB(A) action level in under an hour.
A petrol cut-off saw giving 105 dB(A) at your ear would result in you reaching the 80 dB(A) action level in under two minutes, and the 85 dB(A) action level in around five minutes.
If you are exposed to the upper exposure action level your employer must put in place a hearing protection programme, which should include health surveillance.
Your employer can insist on the use of hearing protection at any time and/or at any noise level, but in doing so they must make sure that the compulsory use of hearing protection does not increase or affect other risks.