16th August, 2023
High levels of noise at work can be bad for your health - and your safety too. Loud noises are dangerous. Your hearing can get damaged, you may have problems communicating. Depending on your work, even quiet noises can be annoying and make it difficult to concentrate.
Noise in the workplace is something many of us have to put up with. Whether you work in an office, hospital, factory or construction site, not many people work in complete silence. You might hear the constant hum of air conditioning, the clanking of a printer, or the deafening roar of machinery.
The noise at work regulations put in place noise action levels that businesses must comply with. These include limits you must not exceed, and action levels that require, well, action.
Find out more about the noise at work action levels and legal limits.
When you think of problems with noise, you will usually consider loud noises. But it is important to be aware of noise at any level.
It probably doesn't surprise you that loud noises can harm your hearing.
When we talk about the effects of noise at work, we are not just talking about loud noises. Depending on the type of work you do, even the slightest noise could affect your work. Let's consider some of the problems associated with noise.
The biggest health risk from noise at work is ear damage.
Noise at work can result in temporary or permanent damage to your hearing. Hearing loss can happen temporarily from exposure to loud noises. But repeated or prolonged exposure can cause permanent damage.
This hearing loss does not always result in full deafness - but makes it difficult to hear speech and certain sounds.
Some 17,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, ringing in the ears or other ear conditions caused by excessive noise at work.
Tinnitus is a ringing in the ears, caused by intense and high noise levels. It usually lasts up to 24 hours after the noise has stopped, but it can become permanent if you are regularly exposed to high noise levels.
Both temporary and permanent hearing problems at work can happen in workplaces with high noise levels that are not adequately controlled. Understanding the legal noise limits and taking action when noise levels are high will prevent damage to hearing through work activities.
Hearing damage can also come about due to a one-off exposure to very loud noises, like an explosion.
Noise can impact your concentration and break your focus. If you have ever tried to carry out some work that needs your full attention, but had workmen or children making noise, you have probably already experienced this.
If you carry out work that requires absolute concentration, the distraction and disruption from noise can be pretty annoying, and make it harder for you to complete the task to the best of your ability.
This problem can happen in a variety of workplaces, even if the workplace isn't one you would typically consider to be noisy.
Call centres and other communal work areas can be constant sources of noise and distraction. With the rise of open-plan offices, the person next to you making a phone call or eating loudly can impact your flow.
Interruptions to your concentration can be bad for your health (see stress below). And it can also be bad for your (and other people's) safety.
If you get distracted when you are controlling machinery or doing other work that needs your full attention to be done correctly, it could cause an accident.
If you are constantly losing focus due to noise, the work you do can be 10x harder. You might have to keep going back over it to make sure you did it right. You might not even notice your mistakes.
Try reading a book while someone is talking to you. In the end, you will probably give up because you can't focus enough on the words on the page.
But if you had to get through the book, because it was your job, the frustration from not being able to focus would make it a pretty stressful experience.
Noise can also cause or contribute towards other work-related stress, causing a loss of concentration, fatigue, and tension, and increasing the risks of ill-health associated with stress.
Stress is really bad for your health and business. Over 11 million days are lost at work in the UK each year because of stress at work, according to HSE statistics.
Check if noise is a contributor to stress in your workplace, and reduce distracting noises, especially for people who need complete focus in their work.
Can noise at work kill you?
You might not think so. But what if you can't hear an alarm going off, because you have suffered hearing loss, or because the machinery you are using is so loud you can't hear it?
Or what if you can't hear the reversing beeps from a forklift truck behind you in the warehouse, because of the noise from other equipment?
Noise at work can interfere with communications and make warnings harder to hear. It can also reduce people’s awareness of their surroundings.
If your work relies on team members being able to communicate with each other, noise can interfere with that. If people are having to shout at each other to be heard, then the noise is probably too loud.
If alarms or warnings can't be heard, people are at increased risk in an emergency. And if people are wearing hearing protection because of noise, make sure you provide visual alerts too.
We mostly consider noise to be a health hazard. But as it turns out, noise at work is bad for both your health and your safety. Make sure you stay within the legal noise limits and assess the noise risks in your workplace.
Consider areas where noise needs to be prevented and minimised so that work can be carried out safely.
Where you need to control noise, it is much better to reduce the noise at the source, protecting everyone, rather than just relying on PPE like ear defenders that protect the individual. A combination of control measures may be needed.
Download the noise at work toolbox talk to raise awareness of the dangers of noise at work.
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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