The Noise At Work Action Levels And Legal Limits header image

15th February, 2019

The Noise At Work Action Levels And Legal Limits

Do you often long for a bit of peace and quiet? Time away from the stress and strain of work, a break from the hustle and bustle, some peace and tranquillity? You're not alone. We all need a bit of silence sometimes. It can help us concentrate and focus. Or even help us stay calm or relax.

If you are exposed to noise at work, it can be distracting. A faulty buzzing light or some temporary building works at your office, for example, can be a real nuisance. Too much noise can be more than a nuisance. High levels of noise can cause permanent and disabling hearing loss.

This is not a small problem either. The HSE reports that in the UK alone some 17,000 people suffer deafness, ringing in the ears or other ear conditions caused by excessive noise at work.

What if you are a builder, or you work in a factory or warehouse, and you are exposed to noisy work every day? Well, some workplaces are noisier than others. But, even if you work in a noisy industry, noise at work must be controlled.

Employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their workforce. This duty extends to noise exposure. Noise is such a big problem, there is a specific set of regulations that apply. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations. These regulations cover duties regarding managing noise at work and specify legal limits regarding noise levels.

Level Noise Exposure Peak
Lower exposure action values 80 dB(A) 135 dB(C)
Upper exposure action values 85 dB(A) 137 dB(C)
Exposure limit values 87 dB(A) 140 dB(C)

Exposure Action Values

4.—(1) The lower exposure action values are—

  1. a daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 80 dB (A-weighted); and
  2. a peak sound pressure of 135 dB (C-weighted).

(2) The upper exposure action values are—

  1. a daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 85 dB (A-weighted); and
  2. a peak sound pressure of 137 dB (C-weighted).

The first limits to be aware of when it comes to noise, are the exposure action values. These are the levels of exposure at which you need to take certain actions. So, action levels can be exceeded, but only in a controlled way.

If people are exposed to noise at or above the lower action values, then a risk assessment must be carried out. This should assess the level, type and duration of exposure, and the measures needed to reduce or control that exposure.

Exposure Limit Values

(3) The exposure limit values are—

  1. a daily or weekly personal noise exposure of 87 dB (A-weighted); and
  2. a peak sound pressure of 140 dB (C-weighted).

Exposure limit values are the levels of noise above which an employee may not be exposed. They are limits that must not be exceeded. If these limits are exceeded employers must take action. This includes reducing exposure below the limit, identifying why it was exceeded, and making changes to prevent it from being exceeded again.

Measuring Noise

If you work in a noisy workplace, you probably know about it. As a general guide, if you stand 2 meters away from a colleague, and you struggle to hear through the noise without shouting, then action should be taken.

If you need to shout to be heard by someone 1m away, noise levels could be 90dB or more.

Before hearing loss occurs, exposure to noise can also have a negative effect on concentration and cause irritability which can lead to mistakes, accidents and poor productivity. These are all early warning signs of a noise problem at work.

Of course, the only way to really know if noise is a problem is to measure it.

Noise reading equipment should be used to establish the level of exposure and assess the appropriate action required, alternatively equipment manufacturers should provide details on the expected noise output, however, this can vary depending on the type of use and environment.

You may have noticed some of the action and limit values are A-weighted, and some are C-weighted. These are just slightly different ways of measuring noise levels, which can be set on noise measuring devices. A-weighted is an approximation to how the human ear perceives the noise. C-weighting is more commonly used for measuring peak measurements.

Reducing Noise Levels

Action should start with trying to reduce noise levels, through changing equipment where possible to those with lower noise output, or perhaps moving it further away from the work area if appropriate to do so. Having the equipment serviced regularly can also help to prevent noise levels from increasing.

Another option to reduce noise levels in the workplace could be installing an acoustic enclosure around the equipment, to minimise the spread of noise output, and contain noise to a controlled area.

Some actions that can be taken to eliminate or reduce noise at work include:

  • Changing processes and working methods
  • Consider noise levels in equipment selection
  • Maintain equipment and machinery
  • Eliminating, reducing, damping or cushioning impacts
  • Attaching silencers
  • Provide periods of relief
  • Install noise enclosures
  • Acoustic screens and barriers
  • Increasing the distance between people and noise
  • Limit duration of exposure

Hearing Protection

PPE is the last line of defence, and where noise levels have been reduced as much as possible but are still above the action levels, hearing protection should be provided. Where levels are at or above the lower action values, hearing protection must be provided on request. Where levels are at or above the upper limits, this must be worn at all times to protect hearing.

hearing protection
Hearing protection may be required in addition to other controls.

It is important to be aware that other controls will be required, in addition to hearing protection, if noise levels are above the upper action values. You cannot rely on hearing protection as the only control.


Download the noise at work toolbox talk, and raise awareness of the dangers from noise exposure.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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