Work-related noise-induced hearing loss is a preventable but irreversible condition that affects many Australian workers.
- Between 28–32% of the Australian workforce is likely to work in an environment where they are exposed to loud noise at work.
- Noise-related injuries are most common in the manufacturing and construction industries with technicians and trades workers, machinery operators, drivers and labourers most exposed.
Too much noise at work can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss or tinnitus—ringing in the ears. Hearing damage can occur from extended exposure to noise or exposure to very loud impact or explosive sounds.
- Long term exposure to loud noise is the most common preventable cause of hearing loss.
Hearing loss: a snapshot
- From 2001–02 to 2014–15 there were 65,300 accepted claims for deafness in Australia. This was an average of 4,700 per year.
- Over one-third (35%) of these claims were made by employees in the manufacturing industry while 18% came from construction.
- The primary mechanism that led to deafness was long-term exposure to sounds arising from working inside.
- In 2007–08 $41 million in workers’ compensation payments were made with an estimated total economic cost of around $240 million.
Work health and safety duties
Under the model WHS Regulations a business must:
- Make sure the noise a worker is exposed to at the workplace doesn’t exceed the exposure standard for noise.
- Provide audiometric testing to a worker who is frequently required to use personal hearing protectors to protect them from hearing loss associated with noise that exceeds the exposure standard.
Designers and manufacturers of plant must make sure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that plant emits as little noise as possible. They need to provide information about:
- noise emission values
- operating conditions used to measure noise emissions
- how noise emissions were measured.
Importers and suppliers must get this information and pass it on to customers.
The potential for noise to be hazardous is not always obvious. The effects of long-term exposure are cumulative and a worker may carry out a number of noisy work activities that over time expose them to hazardous noise.
Table 1: Common noise sources and their typical sound levels
|Typical sound level in dB||Sound source|
|140||Jet engine at 30 m|
|130||Rivet hammer (pain can be felt at this threshold)|
|100||Sheet metal workshop|
|80||Kerbside heavy traffic|
|40||Quiet radio music|
If you have identified any noisy activities that may expose workers or others to hazardous noise, unless you can reduce the exposures to below the standard straight away, you should assess the risks by carrying out a noise assessment.
A noise assessment will help you:
- identify which workers are at risk of hearing loss
- determine what noise sources and processes are causing that risk
- identify if and what kind of noise control measures could be implemented
- check the effectiveness of existing control measures.
Steps to control noise in a workplace
The model WHS Regulations require duty holders to work through a hierarchy of control to choose the measure that eliminates or most effectively minimises the risk in the circumstances.
- The most effective control measure is to eliminate the source of noise completely. Can you plug electrical equipment into mains supply instead of using a noisy generator? Can you replace hand-held power tools with an automated process that doesn’t produce noise?
- If you can't eliminate the noise look at reducing it. Can you substitute noisy pieces of plant with less noisy ones? Can you move the equipment further away with the use of extension cords, additional welding leads, or longer air hoses?
Remember that actions to eliminate or minimise noise may introduce new hazards, and risks associated with those hazards need to be managed effectively.
Other ways to minimise noise include:
- Engineering controls. These are a common control measure. You might modify equipment to reduce noise at the source, or place barriers of plywood around the source. You might also place barriers along the transmission path to reduce noise levels, or place them around the worker to prevent noise exposure.
- Administrative controls. These include operating noisy machines during shifts where fewer people are exposed, limiting the amount of time a person spends near a noise source, moving workers away from the noise source to reduce their exposure, or providing quiet areas where workers can gain relief from hazardous noise sources.
- PPE. Personal hearing protectors such as ear-muffs or ear-plugs should be used:
- when the risks arising from exposure to noise can’t be eliminated or minimised by other more effective control measures
- as an interim measure until other control measures are implemented
- where extra protection is needed above what has been achieved using other noise control measures.
The risk of occupational noise-induced hearing loss is increased by relying too much on, and improperly using, personal hearing protectors such as ear muffs and plugs.
Easy ways to keep noise levels low:
- Buy the quietest plant and machinery for the job and always ask the manufacturer/supplier for information about noise levels.
- Change the way you do the job, for example glue don’t hammer, weld don’t rivet, lower don’t drop.
- Reduce noise levels at the source, for example fit silencers to exhausts, turn down the volume, change fan speeds.
- Isolate the source of the noise, for example use barriers, remote controls or sound-proof covers.
- Reduce exposure levels, for example restrict access to noisy areas, provide quiet areas for rest breaks, or limit time spent in noisy areas by rotating tasks.
- Proper maintenance of equipment and tools can result in lower noise levels.