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a man on a worksite with ear muffs onMany health and safety professionals are aware of the risk to health and safety that regular workplace hazards such as chemicals and items of plant present. Chemicals and plant are common items on OHS strategic plans and are often top of the list on compliance registers, but where does occupational noise sit?

Occupational noise becomes hazardous and will cause permanent hearing damage when an employee is exposed to sound pressure above 85db over the period of an 8hr day or if an employee is exposed to a peak noise level of 140db. How loud is that exactly? Well traffic, a blender and a washing machine all produce about 85db of noise, hazardous noise is quieter than most people think.

Hazardous noise is an overlooked hazard in many workplaces; it is often brushed to the side and combined with a PPE policy. This can prove to be a significant oversight in risk management as hearing loss accounted for 30% of all workers compensation claims in 2012. As hearing loss is often a permanent disability the liability and financial burden on a business can be severe.

The biggest mistake a business can make in mitigating noise risk is to identify a possible hazardous noise environment and then issue hearing protection to employees rather than take a systematic approach. Without knowing what current noise levels are it is impossible to know if the hearing protection prescribed is correct; it may be under-rated and not block enough noise from the ear or over-rated and unnecessarily reduce employee situational awareness. Furthermore once hearing protection is prescribed the employer then has further obligations under the OHS/WHS Regulations to audio-metrically test their employees upon employment and every two years following at a substantial cost to the business. Hearing protection should be prescribed only as a last resort and hazardous noise risk as other business risk should be systematically approached;

Identify: complete a Noise Risk Assessment; are power tools, air tools, machinery & equipment used in your workplace? Are your employees susceptible to environmental noise? Do they spend long periods in cars? Forklifts? In areas where wind noise is high? Are your employees currently required to wearing hearing protection?

Assess: if you have identified that your workplace may have an occupational noise hazard present have your noise levels measured with a Noise Assessment.

Control: If hazardous noise levels are identified, the hierarchy of control should be followed as would be the case with a plant or chemical hazard. PPE must be considered a last resort.

Review: your controls should be reviewed as necessary. Noise levels should be re-assessed periodically by means of a Noise Assessment to account for machinery and equipment deterioration, modification, and installation.

Some important points to remember regarding hazardous noise;

  • Employees may lodge workers compensation claims for hearing loss long after they have left your workplace.
  • Hearing protection is not the optimal solution; employees may not wear the protection correctly or not at all. It is difficult to enforce. Employees may find ear plugs and ear muffs uncomfortable to wear and the PPE may interfere with their work or other clothing and equipment.

Article by: Adam Federenko –

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