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Don't bring the noise

Hearing loss at work is a real danger, say the producers of a new e-learning programme about noise on the construction site

Posted by Dave Higgitt | April 28, 2015 | Security & safety

Industrial hearing loss is among the most common causes of industrial injury and is particularly frequent in the construction sector. Construction processes are generally very noisy, but because hearing loss is often cumulative and may take years to develop, the dangers are easily overlooked. This is a concern both for workers and for employers, the latter being legally bound to protect construction workers from the damaging effects of noise.

Given this, technology company 3M has joined the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) to produce an interactive e-learning programme which explores the issues around hearing conservation and employers’ responsibilities.

All employers in the construction sector, as elsewhere, have a duty of care to protect their workers from the damage caused by industrial noise. This duty arises under various UK laws and regulations, primarily the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. There is also a duty of care towards those who may be incidentally affected, such as members of the public passing by, living or working close to a construction site.

Exposure to noise at work can cause a range of problems, in particular hearing loss and tinnitus (a persistent ringing, buzzing or other sound in the ears). The risk of harm increases with the level and duration of noise, and often with repeated exposure – although single exposure to noise can and does cause permanent hearing damage.

Hearing loss often takes years to develop fully, but when it does can mean sufferers becoming socially isolated, stressed and depressed. Industrial hearing damage is generally permanent.

Anybody employing construction workers needs to be aware of their legal duties and of the fact that construction is known to be high risk for industrial noise: for example formwork can reach levels up to 92 (LEP,d) and concrete pouring up to 97 (LEP,d). Employers have a duty to protect workers from the damaging effects of noise on site; they must comply with the relevant noise exposure action and limit values and reduce the risks from noise to the lowest level that is reasonably possible. Only then should hearing protection be considered, as a means of mitigating the residual risk and reducing the danger even further. Hearing protection cannot be used as the primary means of reducing industrial noise.

Thus employers must assess, control and review the risks posed by noise exposure on construction sites. The steps that managers must take are triggered by exposure action values of noise, the lowest of which is 80dBA (averaged over an eight-hour period). As the level and duration of noise increases so does the risk and the type of action required of the employer changes.

The first step is to assess the level of noise on site, the amount of time exposed to the noise and then take steps to reduce it. As a rule of thumb, if people standing around two metres apart have to raise their voices to chat in any location on site or at any point, then the noise level is too high. What is more, the dangers are not only posed by continuous sound. Infrequent but intense sounds, such as those made by cartridge-operated tools, are also dangerous.

Effective worker engagement can be helpful when it comes to making an accurate assessment of noise on site. Workers can explain and describe in detail the processes involved and what noise is generated, how and where. This can be combined with more formal assessments and measurements, such as the use of noise-related information supplied with tools and equipment.

Once an accurate assessment has been made, the next step is to reduce the level of noise as far as possible. There are various ways of doing this, for example: 

• staff who do not need to be in or within earshot of a noisy area can be removed from it and work elsewhere

• site design should take noise risks in to account – for example, walkways should be positioned away from particularly noisy processes

• noisy processes can be replaced with less noisy approaches: for example, boring instead of pile driving

• equipment can be bought or hired with noise levels in mind: some items are louder than their alternatives

• equipment can be replaced with that made of less noisy materials: rubber rather than metal hammers, for example

• sound barriers and/or shields can be installed

• workers should be trained to use equipment in the most appropriate way: for example, with windows and doors closed

• the amount of time for which workers are exposed to noise may be limited via work rotas and rosters

When all steps possible to limit noise have been taken, the degree of residual noise must be assessed and, if appropriate, suitable hearing protection equipment provided.

The type of hearing protection and its manufacturer are important choices, since a study by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has estimated that around 40 percent of workers using hearing protection are inadequately protected. It is also important that workers are trained to use the hearing protection properly – bearing in mind that over-protection can be as dangerous as under protection on a construction site if workers cannot hear warning signals.

Even when all of these steps have been taken and work is underway, employers should continue to monitor the situation and use health surveillance methods where appropriate.

Employers in the construction industry are among those most likely to be faced with claims for industrial hearing damage as a result of exposure to noise. There are many noisy processes and environments within any construction site, and managing the risk from noise in all of them is a complex task: but it must and can be done effectively.

The new e-learning programme developed by 3M and the HSL covers these issues in four sections: hearing hazards and risks; monitoring exposure and risk assessment; noise control and hearing protection; using health surveillance to influence behaviour.

The programme can be purchased from Or for more information see a white paper on the subject here:

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