Too much noise at work can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss, or tinnitus – ringing in the ears. The damage can occur gradually, from extended exposure to noise or immediately, from exposure to a sudden explosive sound.
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the single greatest cause of permanent hearing loss in Australia - and it's also the most preventable. Over the past four years more than 10,000 workers have been affected by noise-related injuries in NSW workplaces, with more than 90 per cent left permanently disabled.
Noise-related injuries are most common in the mining, manufacturing, construction and transport/postal/warehousing industry sectors.
There are specific laws that require PCBUs to control the risk of exposure to noise in the workplace that exceeds the exposure standard for noise. Here is a summary of those laws, as well as some practical tips.
Ensure appropriate noise levels
Clause 56 details the meaning of the exposure standard for noise , which has two criteria:
a) a total (continuous) noise that exceeds 85 dB when averaged over an 8-hour period (known as 85dB(A)). The relationship between noise level and exposure time that is measured in a logarithmic scale – where every 3dB(A) increase in noise doubles the risk of exposure to hearing loss
b) a noise that exceeds a peak noise level of 140 dB(C) at any time during the day.
Ideally, you should keep noise levels below:
- 50 dB(A) if the work requires high concentration or effortless conversation
- 70 dB(A) if the work is routine, fast-paced and demands attentiveness, or if it is important to carry on conversations.
Manage the risks
Clause 57 says you must manage the risks of workers getting hearing loss from noise in the workplace, focusing on the hierarchy of controls This means you must try to eliminate and reduce, so far as is reasonably practicable, any health and safety risks in the workplace – including those associated with exposure to hazardous noise.
Reasonably practicable means doing the most that you can do, using a systematic risk management process and focusing on the hierarchy of controls from top to bottom, to ensure workers at your business are not exposed to risks to their health and safety. Cost may be relevant but you can only consider this after all other factors have been taken into account.
Here are six easy ways to help you keep noise levels low:
- Buy the quietest plant and machinery for the job – and always ask the manufacturer/supplier for information about noise levels.
- Change the way you do the job – eg glue don’t hammer, weld don’t rivet, lower don’t drop.
- Reduce noise levels at the source – eg fit silencers to exhausts, turn down the volume, change fan speeds.
- Isolate the source of the noise – eg use barriers, remote controls or sound-proof covers.
- Reduce exposure levels – eg restrict access to noisy areas, provide quiet areas for rest breaks, limit time spent in noisy areas.
- Use personal hearing protection, but only as a last resort.
Audiometric testing for workers
Clause 58 requires you to provide audiometric testing for workers who frequently use personal hearing protection to protect them from hazardous noise.
NOTE: SafeWork NSW has issued a statewide exemption from this requirement, which is in force until 31 December 2018, however:
- the granting of this exemption does not lessen your legislative duties to control hazardous noise, and
- notwithstanding the exemption, SWNSW considers audiometric testing a very valuable tool to assist you monitor the effectiveness of the noise controls you have implemented to protect your workers from hearing loss – particularly in high-risk industry sectors.
Best practice recommends initial testing within three months of starting work – with follow-up testing at least every two years.
Duties for designers, manufacturers, importers and suppliers
Clause 59 requires designers, manufacturers, importers and suppliers to control risks and provide information.
Designers of plant must ensure the plant emits as little noise as possible. Together with the design specifications, information must be provided about:
- the noise emission values
- operating the plant to measure noise emissions
- how noise emissions were measured.
Manufacturers must do likewise during and after the manufacturing process – ie ensure the plant emits as little noise as possible and provide all necessary information.
Importers and suppliers must also give this information to their workers and customers.
For practical information about managing risks, the effects of noise, and the role of designers, manufacturers, suppliers, importers and installers of plant and equipment, see the Code of practice for managing noise and preventing hearing loss at work. It includes a hazard identification checklist, a ready reckoner of different sound levels, and examples of control measures.
You can also obtain information in these factsheets: