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Listen up! The Importance of Hearing Health Surveillance in Noisy Workplaces

The danger of noise and its impact on health doesn’t generally figure highly on most people’s list of workplace hazards. Many don’t realise there are Noise at Work Regulations that all companies need to comply. Neither do they understand that prolonged exposure to certain levels of noise can cause irreparable hearing damage.

The following statistics might well surprise you:

  • A sixth of people in the UK have a hearing problem. That equates to about 10 million people.
  • The figure is expected to rise to 14.1 million over the next decade and a half.
  • Hearing problems don’t just affect older people – 3.7 million are under 65 and of working age.
  • Hearing damage is often ignored. On average, a person will wait about 10 years before actually doing something about their hearing loss.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, there are 17,000 people in the UK alone who are currently suffering from a range of hearing problems as a direct result of the job they do. Hearing damage tends to occur more in industries such as manufacturing and construction where noise levels are high. The truth is, however, that any job which exposes you to excessive noise can damage your hearing over time. It may surprise you to learn that Hairdressers, Baristas & Call Centre workers are at risk of hearing damage.

Types of Hearing Damage

There are two ways noise can cause hearing damage. The first is from a single exposure to a loud noise that damages the ears. The most common cause, however, comes from constant or regular exposure to significant levels of noise that lead to an impairment hearing over time. This can happen in many industries, for example, airline workers who are exposed to planes taking off, construction workers using noisy power tools or those in the manufacturing industry subjected to the constant roar of powerful machinery. It can even impact on those in the music and entertainment industry.

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations were introduced in 2005 and placed the onus on employers to assess the amount of noise their employees are exposed to at work, put in measures to reduce that risk and make sure that those who are exposed regularly undertake adequate health surveillance that monitors their hearing.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, while the number of cases reported of Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) has reduced since the legislation was introduce, in 2015 we were still seeing some 20,000 cases ‘caused or made worse by work.

Judging whether your workplace has a noise problem isn’t always easy. If you own a café, for instance, and are next to busy traffic, you and your staff could be regularly exposed to damaging noise above the recommended decibel limit. Even using a loud power tool for just half an hour a day could cause damage over time if proper ear protection isn’t used.

The first step is to carry out a risk assessment and find out if there is first a problem and then, just as importantly, who is at risk. Any assessment will need to:

  • Identify the noise hazard and how it impacts on personal health and the safe operation of your business.
  • Estimate how much employees are being exposed to the noise risk.
  • Identify the things you can do to comply with the law and reduce the impact of noise, for instance, by introducing various control measures and safety equipment.
  • Highlight those employees who will need health surveillance if they are being exposed.

While you may be able to reduce the risk for certain employees, others, particularly in industries such as construction and manufacturing, might still face constant exposure to high noise levels.

Health Surveillance and Your Workplace

Hearing loss, once it occurs is, normally irreversible. It can range from tinnitus where the person endures a constant ringing in the ears to partial or complete deafness. Regular surveillance for hearing damage is not difficult to set up and can be provided by a trained occupational health service. The measures you need to put in place should also include making employees aware of the risks and working with them to implement a system of checks and protection.

An occupational team will first carry out a baseline test on your employees which involves taking a full history, checking the ear canal and undertaking an audiometric test. Personnel can then be tested each year for the first two years and then every three years thereafter to monitor if there has been any change or deterioration.

Combining regular assessments for working conditions and noise impact, helping to reduce these and using ongoing surveillance for those exposed will not only help you comply with the Noise at Work Regulations but maintain the health and safety of everyone who works for you.

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