Noise at work

Last updated: 19 Dec 2023

What are the risks posed by excessive noise at work and what can you and your employer do about it? This article explains what you need to know.

The risk posed by noise at work

More than two million people in Great Britain are exposed to unacceptable levels of noise at work, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Noise at work can cause temporary or permanent hearing damage, including hearing loss, ringing in the ears or other ear conditions. This can happen suddenly, when exposed to extremely loud noises, or gradually, from exposure to noise over time.

Levels of noise are measured in decibels. When perceived by the human ear, these are usually expressed as an “A-weighted” decibel, or dB(A), to recognise that the ear is less sensitive to low frequencies of sound.

To give an idea of comparative levels of sound, a normal conversation is about 60 dB(A); a vacuum cleaner is around 70 dB(A); traffic on a busy road at a distance of 10m might be between 80 and 90 dB(A); while a chainsaw one metre away will be up to 120 dB(A).

However, a chainsaw is not twice as loud as a conversation. Most of us perceive one sound to be twice as loud as another when they are about 10 dB apart. Therefore, to the human ear, a chainsaw will sound 32 times as loud as a conversation. The sound intensity – which is what really matters when it comes to hearing loss – will be one million times greater.


How loud is too loud?

Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 dB(A) can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound, the less time it takes for hearing loss to happen. Noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) is cumulative, so you’re more likely to experience it if you’re exposed for long periods.

As a simple guide, your workplace might have damaging levels of noise if people have to raise their voice when having a conversation with others who are about 2m away; employees use noisy power tools or machinery for more than half an hour a day; or noise is intrusive, or worse, for most of the day.

Excessive noise can also interfere with communications, make it harder to hear warnings and make people less aware of their surroundings. These issues can put people at risk of injury or death. Lower levels of noise, such as those in an open plan office, can cause other problems, like affecting your ability to concentrate or causing you to feel stressed.


Employers’ legal duties

The main law concerning occupational sources of noise is the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005. The regulations require all employers to eliminate noise at source or, where that is not possible, reduce it to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.

The regulations set out three legal noise thresholds:

  • the “lower action value” – which is 80 dB(A)
  • the “upper action value” – 85 dB(A)
  • the “limit value” – 87 dB(A), which takes account of any reduction in exposure provided by hearing protection.

As the name suggests, if noise is found to be at or above either of the action values, then the employer has to take a particular course of action. The limit value must not be exceeded.

If an employer suspects that noise exceeds the lower action value, 80 dB(A), they have to carry out a noise risk assessment and plan how to eliminate noise or reduce it as much as possible. In a plan for reducing noise exposure, employers should consider things like:

  • Using a different, quieter process or quieter equipment
  • Introducing a low-noise purchasing policy for machinery and equipment
  • Lining machinery parts with a material that reduces vibration (and hence noise) or impact noises
  • Erecting enclosures around machines to reduce the amount of noise emitted
  • Positioning noise sources further away from workers
  • Limiting the time workers spend in noisy areas
  • Protection is best achieved by controlling noise at source. Hearing protection, such as ear plugs defenders, is the last resort.

If employees’ average exposure to noise is noise is between 80 and 85 dB(A) – the lower and upper action values – then employers must provide ear protection if employees want it. At this level and above, employers must also give employees information on the risk and what measures can be taken to protect hearing.

Ear protection must be worn if the noise level reaches 85 dB(A) – the upper action value. Employers must mark where it is to be worn and provide staff with training and information on how to use it.

Employers must provide workers with hearing checks if they are likely to be regularly exposed to noise above 85 dB(A), or are at risk for any reason, for example if they already suffer from hearing loss. Health surveillance is vital to detect and respond to early signs of damage.


Protecting yourself from noise at work

There are steps you can take in the workplace to help protect your hearing:

  • Wear any hearing protection you are provided with when exposed to excessive noise. This can include earmuffs or earplugs.
  • Ensure you use hearing protection as instructed and that the equipment is maintained properly.
  • Report any damaged or defective hearing protection to your employer or safety representative.
  • If you suspect your hearing is being affected by workplace noise, tell your employer or your safety representative straight away.