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Pipe down or pay up

NOISE REGULATIONS - From 6 April tough new noise regulations are coming into force on British building sites.And contractors who dismiss the 5 dB reduction as a minor amendment will do so at their peril. David Taylor reports

THE CONSTRUCTION industry can be many things, but 'quiet' is seldom one of them. Generators, compressors, breakers, diggers, drills and cutters all contribute to the cacophony of sound that rises from a busy and productive construction site.

And although a steady hum of activity is generally a good thing, many construction activities are potentially ear-splitting. These are the ones that upset the neighbours and, more seriously, damage people's hearing. Excessive noise, experienced even for relatively short periods of time, can cause deafness or tinnitus ? a continuous noise, such as hissing, or ringing, in the ear ? or both.

All employers have a long-standing duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) to protect their employees against excessive noise levels. More recently, specific requirements were introduced with the Noise at Work Act (1989).

These regulations set definitive noise levels above which action must be taken to protect individuals.

Since these regulations came into force, ear defenders have become as commonplace on site as hard hats. But now these regulations are being tightened up further with the new Control of Noise at Work Regulations (2005) which come into effect on April 6.

In an industry regularly bombarded with newlyupdated health and safety regulations, many employers might find themselves succumbing to legislation fatigue and could be tempted to let this latest wave of bureaucracy wash over them. After all, at first glance the new regulations don't seem too onerous. For example, they reduce the 'action value' noise levels by only 5 dB from the previous limit of 85 dB and , to the layman, this might seem a minor amendment.

But this is a dangerous assumption. Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale and noise energy actually doubles or halves with every 3 dB increase or decrease measured.

Furthermore, the new regulations do not merely reduce the noise 'dosage' ? that is exposure to a given noise level over a given period of time. They also introduce new responsibilities for employers and impose a pro-active, rather than reactive duty on them to reduce the noise energy reaching the individual.

'The wording of the new regulations very clearly emphasises the legal duty to assess noise exposure and to control it, ' explains Graham Cowling, senior consultant with the acoustics and vibration group of consultant Bureau Veritas.

Mr Cowling explains that there are two noise limits ? known as 'exposure action values' ? which trigger an employer's obligat ion to tack le excessive noise.

'The first thing an employer must do is carry out a risk assessment and see if noise levels are going to exceed the lower exposure action value, ' says Mr Cowling.

The employer then has to put in place an action plan to protect employees. If the upper exposure action value is exceeded, the employer must take act ion to protect people.

'These measures can involve changing the way people work, changing the equipment they're using, changing the location of equipment and so on, ' says Mr Cowling. 'You can do an awful lot to manage out the noise risk. It's a time-and-motion study with noise added.' The new regulations are based on an eight-hour working day, meaning that a person can work for eight hours up to the new upper action value of 85 dB.

When exposed to noise above this action value (when the requirement to implement an action plan is triggered) work does not have to stop, but the permissible time is reduced.

'Because each additional 3 dB effectively doubles the noise energy, this means that at 88 dB, you can only work for four hours, ' explains Mr Cowling.

Martin Williams, environment, health and safety manager with equipment hirer Hewden, agrees that, while no one can afford to ignore the regulations, complying with their requirements should be st raightforward.

'The HSE doesn't want people baff led by the science, ' he says. 'All they want is to see people carrying out proper risk assessments and putting together a suitable action plan.

It's about sensible management.' As an equipment supplier, Hewden is working towards reducing the noise hazard produced by its tools. Last year the company set up a new vetting scheme for all new products which ensures that before Hewden invests in new equipment several different models are assessed against a range of criteria ? including the noise they generate.

'We've also set up a network of about 20 'product champions' dotted about the country, each one specialising in a particular class of product, ' says Mr Williams. These product champions play a key role in evaluating new models.

Manufacturers and suppliers will lend Hewden a dozen of so tools for evaluation on site, says Mr Williams. While smaller companies without Hewden's considerable buying power might struggle to do the same, it does enable a hire company to achieve an optimum balance of cost, performance and safety in use.

Hewden is also running a campaign from now until July to highlight the new noise regulations.

Under the 'Shout About Noise Reduction' banner, the company is producing a series of posters and leaf lets for point-of-hire information. It is also launching a series of noise seminars, roadshows and instructional DVDs for customers.

'The Shout About Noise Reduction slogan comes from a simple rule of thumb ? that if you've got to shout at someone right next to you, the ambient noise is above 85 dB, ' says Mr Williams.

This acknowledgement of the value of plain common sense says a lot ? after all, if the ambient noise is so loud the obvious thing to do is to move away so that you can hear each other speak. This simple expedient m ight also be all that is required under the new regulations' duty of care to 'take action' to reduce noise exposure.

Graham Cowling stresses that managing noise comes down to the most basic decisions: 'Like deciding where to eat your sandwiches. If you're going to sit right next to the compressor, you'll get a higher dose than if you go and sit in a site hut.' Because humans can be such unpredictable creatures, the new 80 dB lower action value has been specifically chosen, says Mr Cowling, because there is no statistical difference, from the health point of view, between this noise level and no noise at all.

'If you put 100 people into a noisy environment, some people would suffer hearing damage sooner than others. The new lower action level creates a uniform baseline. Mind you, 11 per cent of the population will go deaf anyway, without any noise at all.'