The Control of Noise at Work Regulations were introduced in April to protect workers from hearing damage. But a recent survey of Construction News subscribers has revealed that employers are failing to listen - at the expense of their employees. Martin Williams, health and safety manger at Hewden, analyses the results
THE CONTROL of Noise at Work Regulations introduced by the EU state that, from April 6, 2006, permissible noise levels will need to be reduced by 5 dB(A), representing a cut of around 70 per cent.
The regulations oblige employers to provide training and assess the risk to workers exposed to a noise level of 80 dB(A). Workers exposed to this level and above must have ear protection available and employers will also have to change work ing pract ices and put addit ional measu res in place.
At first glance, this can seem overwhelming.
Employers could be forgiven for thinking that compliance will require top of the range equipment, a mathematician and a friendly bank manager - this is not the case. If employers use common sense and make practical changes they can remain well within the revised limits.
Do not be confused by the numbers, the regulations are simply about controlling noise. The new acceptable sound levels are the equivalent of, for example, someone shouting.
Information from the Health and Safety Executive shows that if you have to shout to make you rself heard , your hearing is at risk of being damaged.
Given the industry's concerns about the new regulations, Hewden and Construction News wanted to assess how employers have responded to them and whether workers were finally getting the hearing protection they are entitled to? We carried out a survey among construction workers in the UK and analysed the results.
As we expected, the survey showed that 95 per cent of construction workers are concerned about damage being caused to their hearing as a result of working in noisy environments.
But just over half of those people - 54 per cent - have received no training for noise hazards or control measures. This is particularly alarming and illustrates that employers are failing to address their legal responsibilities and, as a result, protect the health and safety and well being of their employees.
In addition to this, 72 per cent of respondents said they do not receive any health surveillance for hearing from their employers, again, something that under the new regulations employers are supposed to provide for workers who operate in noisy environments above 85 dB(A).
The most basic means of protecting someone from excessive amounts of noise is for them to wear ear defenders or plugs.
Despite the introduction of the regulations in April and the advice offered to employers about how to comply with the regulations, remarkably 66 per cent still do not use ear defenders to protect their hearing.
Although this is classed a last resort, its use should be more widespread considering the number of concerned employees.
It would be too easy to simply point the finger at employers. Everyone involved in the industry has a part to play to ensure the health and safety of staff, including the staff themselves. Perhaps more can be done to educate people about the introduction of the legislation.
Our survey found that 61 per cent of people were aware of the regulations and, while this is the majority, there are still an awful lot of people from front line staff to managers and company heads who did not even know the regulations existed. Equipment suppliers, hirers and the press should also help educate everyone about changing regulations, something we actively try do at Hewden.
Over half of the respondents - again 54 per cent - said that they had not noticed any change to their daily working practice since the introduction of the regulations.
This shows that many contractors are choosing to simply ignore the regulations. In the long term, those companies will face the consequences.
The penalties for failing to comply with the regulations are greater than a small fine and a slap on the wr ist. Damage caused to people's hear ing is a slow and gradual process. By the time a person realises that damage has occurred it is often far too late to do anything. This is why regular hearing checks are so important for employees.
We have been working with a charity that provides hearing dogs for deaf people. Hearing damage doesn't just affect you r ability to listen, it can cost people the ability to carry out aspects of everyday life that we take for granted. For this reason we would encourage employees who work in noisy environments to raise any concerns they have about noise exposure with their employer.
Another interesting finding from our research is that the vast majority of people - 77 per cent - felt that their hearing had not been affected from working in a noisy environment.
This further stresses the importance of carrying out hearing tests, as continued exposure to noise will undoubtedly cause damage to hearing whether an employee is aware if it or not, as people do not feel pain or discomfort, they simply lose the ability to hear over time.
Besides the health risks associated with noncompliance, employers will almost certainly face a greater wealth risk.
The HSE has so far been very lenient with employers, as it is understandable that a transitional period is required for changes made to the daily working practices of businesses. But as time goes by, the HSE will get increasingly tougher with employers that fail to meet their regulatory obligations.
In the long term, employers that do not carry out the required actions set out in the new act may even find themselves in trouble with the enforcing authorities.
It only takes one person to lose their hearing through excessive noise exposure at work and if that person's employer can not demonst rate that it enforces adequate policies to protect workers, the financial implications are likely to be very severe.
This survey was carried out by polling subscribers to CNplus in July 2006. There were 459 replies.
For more information visit www. hewden. co. uk/ safety_guides.
FOCUS ON THE FACTS
Do not get caught up in the science behind estimating exposure values. Use simple noise meters, information from manufacturers and suppliers or from similar assessments.
Remember, the regulations are concerned with controlling noise and not measuring it.
Since decibels are on a logarithmic scale, for every 3 dB increase, the actual noise intensity doubles. Example: 88 dB has twice the sound pressure as 85 dB.
Generally speaking, if you have to shout to be heard by someone who is only two or three feet away, the noise level at your workplace is probably greater than 85 dB. It could even be above 90 dB.