NOISE INDUCED HEARING LOSS - ACT, BEFORE THE DAMAGE IS DONE
An estimated 20,000 people working during the last year alone suffered from Noise Induced Hearing Loss. Tim Turney, technical product manager, discusses the long lasting impact this condition can have, and how employers must put monitoring processes in place to help identify the issue.
Action on Hearing Loss reports that there are more than 11 million people in the UK with some form of hearing loss; accounting for a sixth of the population. By 2035, this figure is set to rise, with 15.6 million people affected by hearing loss. NIHL was first seen as in issue in an occupational context in the early 1700s, amongst copper workers in Italy. In the 19th century, Thomas Barr coined the phrase ‘Boilermaker’s Ear’, describing the peculiar series of symptoms felt by shipmakers located on the River Clyde, caused by the impact of metal-on-metal when riveting. Given that the exposure was first acknowledged over three hundred years ago, why is this wholly preventable condition still so prevalent in workplaces today?
At a Loss
Since the introduction of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations in Great Britain in April 2006, employers have a responsibility to protect the hearing of their workers.
We actually hear with our brain, not our ears, and so when hearing loss occurs, connections in the brain that respond to sound become re-organised. Though individual experiences vary, the effects tend to begin small, and progress as the hearing loss worsens. For most, it begins with not being able to hear simple sounds clearly – with people in a close proximity sounding as if they are mumbling. Social situations eventually become increasingly difficult and can result in changing relationships with co-workers, managers, friends, and family. Employees with hearing loss are fundamentally more vulnerable in the workplace, unware of sounds around them, resulting in safety accidents potentially occurring. The inability to communicate with employers on workplace issues could also eventually impact the likelihood of further training in a role.
Tinnitus, often called ‘Ringing in the Ears’, is a loud ringing noise that is commonly associated with hearing loss. This annoying buzzing or ringing noise in the ears can eventually disrupt sleep and concentration levels, meaning that the individual is not alert during the day. Unsurprisingly, people suffering with hearing loss faced with such obstacles on a daily basis can suffer from depression as a result.
Perhaps there would be a different attitude to occupational deafness issues if the physical impact was more severe - – if worker’s ears were to bleed, or if hearing loud sounds was a very painful instant experience. For those with the condition, it truly is all-encompassing.
Monitoring is key to preventing workplace NIHL and there are a range of solutions available depending on the risk and requirements of the environment in question. Taking on a new responsibility to tackle this can feel daunting. It can be effectively carried out by appropriately trained health and safety professionals, or occupational hygienists, both able to advise on key actions that must be taken to manage the monitoring programme going forward. Importantly, monitoring must be conducted in a way so that the comfort or productivity of the worker is not impacted.
When starting workplace noise monitoring, you must ask yourself 5 key questions:
What are the likely levels of noise in the workplace and their sources?
What needs to be measured- personal noise exposure, noise from a particular machine or wider area monitoring?
Is the noise source likely to be emitting significant high or low frequencies?
What class of sound level meter do you require? Have you checked relevant legislation and guidance?
How are you going to report your measurements and learn from them?
Noise dosimeters are ideal for personal exposure monitoring whilst sound level meters can be used via walk through surveys or area monitoring to check workforce regulations. Environmental noise measurements can be taken over short, medium or long periods of time with hand held, semi permanent or permanent systems depending on the application.
If noise exposure reaches 80 decibels (dB), the equivalent of a telephone dial tone, employers are legally bound to start taking action. Workplace noise monitoring gives you this analysis and will ensure you are putting the right processes in process, protecting your workforce now from potentially developing NIHL in the future as a result of workplace conditions.