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Understanding Hazardous Noise Exposure: Risks and Remedies 

10/05/2024by admin0Read: 8 minutes

Sound, often overlooked as mere vibrations in the air, is an integral aspect of our daily existence. However, what many fail to recognise is that extended or excessive exposure to elevated noise levels can result in a genuine workplace hazard—noise-induced hearing loss.

Whether it manifests as a temporary inconvenience or a permanent impairment, hearing loss is an issue that businesses should never underestimate. Its implications extend beyond an individual’s personal quality of life and can significantly impact their job performance, thereby affecting overall business productivity.

In this blog, we delve into the critical matter of noise-induced hearing loss as a workplace concern. We’ll explore its nuances, the risks it poses, and most importantly, how businesses can proactively address and mitigate this potential threat to their workforce and productivity.

Hazardous Noise

In the workplace, sound becomes unwanted when it transforms into noise, measured in decibels (dB). When noise surpasses workplace exposure standards, it becomes hazardous, necessitating a business’s commitment to ensure worker safety. The Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 defines the exposure standard for noise as LAeq,8h of 85 dB(A) or an LC,peak of 140 dB(C).

The “Managing Noise and Preventing Hearing Loss at Work Code of Practice 2021” provides a comprehensive guide on recognising hazardous noise, delineates your responsibilities, and offers practical insights to safeguard workers effectively.

Hazards of Noise Exposure

Sound activates tiny hair-like cells in your inner ear, which transmit signals to your brain, playing a crucial role in your hearing process.

Noise-induced hearing loss can be either temporary or permanent, and it may worsen over time. Unfortunately, permanent hearing loss currently has no cure.

One of the primary causes of cell damage leading to hearing loss is exposure to excessively loud sounds. This exposure can be sudden, like an explosion, or prolonged over time.

Hearing impairment can also result from exposure to specific chemical substances known as ototoxic agents. It’s important to note that the risk of hearing loss significantly increases when someone is exposed to both excessive noise and ototoxic substances simultaneously.

The risk of noise-related injuries rises depending on the intensity and duration of noise exposure. For instance, if a worker needs to raise their voice to communicate with someone just one meter away, it’s often an indication of a noise level that’s too high, a situation commonly referred to as the ‘1-meter rule.’

Exposure to hazardous noise within your workplace can pose various risks, including:

1) Hearing Impairment and Tinnitus: Prolonged exposure to high noise levels can lead to hearing loss and the onset of tinnitus (ringing in the ears).

2) Speech Interference: Excessive noise can disrupt communication by interfering with speech, making it challenging to convey information effectively.

3) Impaired Concentration and Cognitive Function: Noisy environments can hinder concentration and cognitive processes, affecting productivity and decision-making.

4) Sleep Disturbances: Noise-related disturbances can lead to sleep problems, leaving employees fatigued and irritable.

5) Fatigue and Aggression: Continuous exposure to noise can contribute to fatigue and potentially lead to heightened aggression in some individuals.

6) Reduced Immune Response: Prolonged exposure to hazardous noise may weaken the immune system’s response to illnesses and infections.

7) Acoustic Shock: Sudden, loud noises can cause acoustic shock, leading to stress and discomfort.

Furthermore, hazardous noise exposure is associated with several other significant health effects, including:

1) Elevated Blood Pressure: Chronic exposure to loud noise can result in increased blood pressure levels.

2) Accelerated Heart Rate: Noise-related stress can lead to a faster heart rate, potentially impacting overall cardiovascular health.

3) Stress-Related Symptoms: Prolonged exposure to noise can induce stress, leading to symptoms such as irritability and headaches.

4) Hypertension: Noise-related stress can contribute to hypertension, increasing the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

5) Impaired Immune Response: Continuous noise exposure may reduce white blood cell count, affecting the body’s immune response.

6) Gastric Ulcers: Stress induced by noise can potentially contribute to the development of gastric ulcers.

7) Heart Disease Risk: Chronic noise exposure is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Moreover, there is evidence that hand-transmitted vibrations can exacerbate the impact of noise on hearing.

Noise Risk Management

The initial step within the risk management process involves a comprehensive identification of all noise sources within your workplace. This encompasses the recognition of elements or situations that have the potential to pose harm to individuals. Hazards typically originate from various aspects of work and their interplay, including:

Step 1) Identify Risk

1) Physical Work Environment:

Assess the physical attributes of the workplace, considering how they may contribute to noise-related hazards.

2) Equipment, Materials, and Substances Used:

Examine the machinery, materials, and substances employed in work processes to pinpoint potential sources of noise.

3) Work Tasks and Execution:

Analyse the tasks performed by workers and the methods employed in their execution, as these may generate or intensify noise.

4) Work Design and Management:

Evaluate the overall design of work processes and how they are managed, as these factors can influence noise levels.

Inspecting Your Business

Hazards linked to noise may not always be readily apparent. Noise exposure is cumulative, and workers may engage in various noisy activities over time, collectively resulting in hazardous noise exposure. To identify such hazards:

Conduct On-Site Inspections: Observe your workplace and the execution of tasks to identify potential sources of noise.

Engaging with Workforce

Collaborate with employees and involve health and safety representatives throughout the risk management process. Their insights, knowledge, and suggestions are invaluable in comprehensively identifying hazards and selecting effective control measures. It is essential to seek their input when planning modifications or acquiring potentially noisy machinery or equipment. Health and safety representatives should have access to pertinent information, such as noise exposure data and potential control measures. Additionally, if a health and safety committee exist, engage them in the process.

Reviewing Available Information

Supplement your hazard identification efforts by consulting a diverse range of information sources pertaining to noise hazards and associated risks. This includes referencing equipment guidelines and reviewing workers’ compensation data specific to your organisation and industry. Examine whether any workers have filed compensation claims related to hearing loss and whether repeat audiometric testing has revealed any instances of hearing loss or tinnitus. Such information can offer valuable insights into potential noise-related risks within your workplace.

Step 2) Assess Risk

Upon identifying any potentially hazardous noise levels, it is imperative to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment, unless immediate measures can be implemented to reduce exposures below the prescribed standard.

A noise assessment serves several crucial purposes:

1) Identification of Noise Sources: It pinpoints the specific sources of noise contributing to the risk.

2) Assessment of At-Risk Individuals: It helps identify which individuals are susceptible to hearing loss due to noise exposure.

3) Evaluation of Control Measures: It assesses the efficacy of existing control measures and suggests potential improvements.

4) Recommendation of Control Measures: The assessment can lead to recommendations for the implementation of new control measures.

To facilitate this process, businesses can utilise a noise exposure calculator. This tool aids in determining a worker’s noise exposure over the course of a work shift and provides guidance on recommended exposure controls. It also assists in determining whether audiometric testing is warranted.

For more comprehensive insights into noise assessments, including who is qualified to conduct them and when they should be carried out, please refer to Section 4 of the “Managing Noise and Preventing Hearing Loss at Work Code of Practice 2021” (PDF, 1.57 MB).

Important Note: It is advisable not to rely on smartphone noise measurement applications for conducting noise assessments, as their accuracy may not meet the necessary standards for work health and safety purposes.

It is imperative to regularly review and repeat noise assessments, ideally at intervals of no longer than five years or whenever significant changes occur in plant equipment, work processes, building structures, or work arrangements. Records of these assessments should be maintained within the workplace and made accessible to all employees.

Step 3: Control Risk

The “Managing Noise and Preventing Hearing Loss at Work Code of Practice 2021” (PDF, 1.57 MB) provides a comprehensive guide to effectively managing noise in the workplace, following the hierarchy of risk control. The primary objective is to eliminate or minimise noise sources, starting with the highest priority:

Controlling Noise at the Source:

1) Purchase Quieter Equipment: Implement a “buy quiet” policy when procuring or renting machinery, prioritising quieter options.

2) Equipment Modification: Explore possibilities to modify equipment or processes to reduce noise emissions.

3) Vibration Isolation: Utilise flexible rubber mount connections to isolate vibrating noise sources from mounting surfaces.

4) Vibration Damping: Apply vibration-damping materials to plant surfaces prone to vibration.

5) Reduce Fan Speed: Consider reducing the speed of fans or other components to lower noise levels.

6) Pneumatic Silencers: Install pneumatic silencers on compressed-air exhausts or blow nozzles.

7) Maintenance: Ensure regular equipment maintenance to prevent excess noise caused by loose parts, unbalanced components, worn bearings, or inadequate lubrication.

8) Work Process Alteration: Explore ways to alter work processes to reduce noise levels.

9) Absorbent Materials: Use absorbent materials to cushion impacts between hard objects and surfaces, such as employing rubber flaps inside material bins to reduce material fall noise.

10) Adjust Force/Pressure/Speed: Modify the force, pressure, or speed that generates noise.

11) Case Studies: Refer to related case studies to discover successful strategies implemented by businesses to mitigate hazardous noise.

Controlling the Noise Pathway:

1) Noise Enclosures: Construct enclosures or soundproof covers around noise sources.

2) Acoustic Enclosures: Provide acoustic enclosures for operators working near noisy machinery.

3) Quiet Rooms: Designate quiet rooms or areas for breaks to offer respite from noise.

4) Office Acoustics: Enhance the acoustic properties of offices located in noisy work areas.

5) Noise Barriers: Use barriers to block and redirect noise pathways. For example, enclose a riveting hammer within an enclosure.

6) Distance: Relocate noisy equipment further away from workers, employing remote controls for operation.

7) Meetings and Breaks: Conduct team meetings and breaks in areas away from noisy workspaces.

Protecting Workers:

1) Work Scheduling: Organise work schedules so that noisy tasks are performed when fewer people are present.

2) Advance Notice: Provide advance notice to individuals regarding when and where noisy work will occur.

3) Limited Exposure: Limit the time workers and others spend in noisy areas.

4) Access Restrictions: Restrict access to noisy work areas.

5) Hearing Protection Zones: Define zones where hearing protection is mandatory.

Providing Training:
  • Inform and Train Workers:

Equip workers with information and training about workplace noise hazards, noise-induced hearing loss, available controls, and their correct usage. This is particularly crucial in environments like call centers, where maintaining appropriate voice levels is essential.

Hearing Protection:
  • Supplemental Protection:

Hearing protection should be considered supplementary to other controls. To be effective, it must be suitable for the wearer, and the task, remain in good condition, be used correctly, and be consistently worn.

For comprehensive guidance on selecting and utilising personal hearing protectors, please refer to the related resources provided.

Remember, prioritising noise management and implementing these control measures not only safeguards your employees’ hearing but also promotes a safer and more productive work environment.

Stage 4) Review Risk

Regularly reviewing your workplace noise control measures is essential to ensure they continue to effectively manage risks. It’s imperative to stay compliant with work health and safety laws, which specify the circumstances necessitating a review of your risk controls.

In the realm of noise exposure management, audiometric testing plays a pivotal role in monitoring workers’ hearing health. If any deviations in a worker’s hearing levels are detected during testing, a thorough investigation should promptly follow to identify potential causes and determine the need for corrective measures.

Before initiating an audiometric testing program, it is prudent to engage in consultation with your workers and health and safety representatives. This collaboration ensures that everyone comprehends the rationale behind these tests and acknowledges their integral role within your broader risk management program.

It is imperative that all testing procedures adhere to the highest standards, be conducted by appropriately trained and experienced professionals, and employ equipment in strict accordance with Part 4: Auditory Assessment of AS/NZS 1269: Occupational Noise Management.

A comprehensive audiometric testing regimen should encompass the following key elements:

1) Initial Audiometric Test: Carried out within three months of a worker commencing employment.

2) Monitoring Audiometric Testing: Conducted within 24 months of the initial test to enable the comparison of hearing abilities.

3) Subsequent Monitoring: Depending on the absence of a threshold shift, follow-up monitoring audiometric testing should be performed every two years. High-risk groups may necessitate more frequent testing.

It is imperative to recognise that while audiometric testing is a valuable component of hearing health monitoring, it should be viewed as complementary to other noise control measures within your workplace. Complete protection from hazardous noise can only be achieved through a comprehensive noise management strategy.

Anitech’s experienced occupational hygienists can help organisations measure noise levels, and risk management and implement control to prevent exposure to hazardous noise.

Call us today at 1300 802 163 or e-mail – sales@anitechgroup.com.

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