Earmuffs at work

27 Feb 2023

Reducing Exposure to Noise in the Workplace

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (CNWR) require employers to prevent or reduce the risk of hearing damage due to exposure to noise at work. But around 17,000 people in the UK still suffer with deafness or some other hearing problem directly caused by excessive noise at work.

These figures have led to a widespread concern that the current approach to managing noise exposure at work is not effective. Insurance liability claims for hearing damage were £400 million in 2014, whilst costs to the NHS have been estimated at around £500 million per annum and the total cost to the UK economy sits at around £5 -7 billion each year.

Although it is widely accepted that the use of personal protective equipment, such as earmuffs or ear plugs are a good way of controlling exposure, many do not have awareness of the additional steps needed to help protect their hearing.

A research paper in 2009 by HSE found that in the workplace, 40% of people received no personal protection whatsoever and for the 60% who did, the performance was deemed inadequate. Even where there appeared to be generally effective use, 14% of staff still did not wear the protection. Alongside this, there is evidence that the real-world protection provided by hearing protectors is considerably lower than that quoted by the manufacturers.


Yet it is estimated that 90% of noise induced hearing damage could be prevented with the correct wearing of hearing protection. So what can be done?

In 2008, a sample of 19 organisations found that the range of compliance with the Noise at Work Regulations ranged from 50% to 100%. Common shortcomings were noise surveys that did not allow individual exposures to be estimated, insufficient awareness raising and training of workers to recognise risks of noise and protect themselves properly and no action plans for continuous improvement.

The CNWR describe a hierarchy of noise exposure control that prioritises elimination and engineered means of reducing exposure. Presuming that both the hierarchy of control has been followed and hearing protection is still required, and the correct hearing protection has been correctly selected and staff trained in its use - it remains for organisations to ensure that the hearing protection is consistently worn in areas where there is a noise risk.


Working in Hearing Protection Zones (HPZs)

When working in HPZs, employers should ensure that workers or individuals in those areas wear appropriate hearing protection to reduce the risk of hearing damage and protect the health of their employees or members.

To check the extent of these zones, a noise assessment should be conducted by a qualified professional to measure the sound levels in various areas of the workplace. The assessment should identify areas where noise levels exceed the recommended exposure limits and be used alongside regular monitoring and the re-evaluation of the noise levels.

This is usually a straightforward exercise where noise is generated by a fixed plant where the levels of noise are fairly consistent and predictable, but it can be a difficult task in areas where noise levels vary over time.

Intermittent and variable noise levels typically occur in workplaces such as construction sites, motor vehicle workshops and airfields. Dynamic HPZs refer to areas where noise levels can vary over time, making it challenging to establish a fixed HPZ boundary and ensure hearing protection is worn when necessary.

To manage dynamic HPZs, it's essential to anticipate in your risk assessment that varying noise levels may occur and conduct regular noise checks to identify areas where noise levels might be excessive and hearing protection is required. However, it's also important to recognise that noise levels can change rapidly in some areas, so it may be necessary to adjust the boundaries of the HPZs based on real-time noise measurements.

Steps to manage Hearing Protection Zones:

  • A quick and simple way to check the extent of a HPZ is to use the “listening check”. If you have to raise your voice to have a conversation at a distance of 1-2m because of the level of background noise, then you should wear hearing protection and make the area a HPZ until you can get the noise level properly checked.
  • Illuminating signs are available that warn staff when the noise level is high enough to warrant wearing hearing protection. However careful thought on the placement, suitability and visibility of these signs is required otherwise they can give misleading signals.
  • Smart hearing protection devices can be used to manage dynamic HPZs. These devices use sensors and software to monitor noise levels and adjust the level of hearing protection provided based on the noise environment. For example, if noise levels suddenly increase, the device can automatically provide more hearing protection to the wearer.
  • Another way to manage dynamic HPZs is to implement a "buddy system", where workers in noisy areas monitor each other's exposure and alert their colleagues when noise levels are likely to exceed safe levels. This system can help workers to be more aware of their exposure and take appropriate action to protect their hearing.


Written by Kelvin Williams, Occupational Hygiene Director at Health Partners