A Guide to Managing Noise in the Workplace
Noise is an often unrecognised hazard, and its implications on our day-to-day lives, especially in the workplace, are substantially underestimated. It’s a complex problem that, if not adequately addressed, can lead to employees experiencing permanent hearing loss, other physical and psychological issues and reduced productivity.
Protection from loud noises and prolonged noise exposure is vital for those working in industrial settings, such as construction and engineering. But it may surprise you to hear that logistics, warehouse and office workers can frequently experience noise levels considered “too loud”.
This guide explores the risks of noise exposure, the measures businesses can implement, and why technology is the key to enhancing workplace safety.
Most of us don’t think much about the everyday sounds we hear. However, noise is a significant concern for people working in busy or loud environments and for the health and safety experts that look after them.
The World Health Organization suggests that noise exposure contributes to 22% of workplace-related health issues. In the UK, the HSE estimates 11,000 new cases of work-related hearing problems each year, with 170,000 people suffering from deafness, tinnitus or other hearing conditions caused by loud work settings. While new cases of occupational deafness have declined in the last decade, there were still ten new cases in 2021.
In the US, The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports around 22 million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise annually.
To understand hearing damage, it’s helpful to understand how the ear works. Sounds travel through the ear canal to the middle ear and are converted to vibrations. The vibrations travel to the inner ear and onto the snail-shaped cochlea filled with fluid and lined with microscopic hairs (stereocilia). The hairs move with the sound vibrations creating nerve impulses, or electrical signals, that the brain can receive and interpret.
Loud noise exposure can destroy the stereocilia, causing hearing loss. Since damaged microscopic hairs cannot regenerate, hearing loss is permanent. Loud noise can also damage the cochlea membrane, in which case it stops transmitting sound information to the brain.
In the case of tinnitus – a ringing, buzzing, whooshing or hissing noise in the ears – the brain tries to seek signals from the cochlea. The signals become over-represented in the brain, causing the sounds of tinnitus.
Sound levels are often expressed as “A-weighted decibel” (dBA or dB(A)), which indicates the relative volume of sounds as heard by the human ear instead of all noise. dBA is, therefore, a more accurate way to assess the impact of noise on human hearing.
A standard group conversation is usually around 60 or 70 decibels. This is considered a safe volume and will not cause hearing damage regardless of the length of exposure. However, research shows that repeated or extended exposure to sounds of above 85 decibels – the equivalent of a worker’s diesel truck travelling 40 miles per hour, a food blender or a noisy restaurant – over a typical eight-hour shift is considered unsafe and can have damaging consequences.
Generally, the louder the noise, the more prolonged the exposure and the more intense the sound, the more hearing damage that can be caused. Also, decibels increase with a logarithmic scale, not a linear scale. This is why safe listening time halves for every three decibels raised. For instance, if 85 decibels is safe for eight hours, 88 decibels is safe for only four.
Hearing damage could happen within an hour at around 95 decibels – equivalent to large sporting events or nightclubs, ambulance sirens and chainsaws. Rock concerts can reach 115 dBA. Some workers are exposed to even higher volumes for prolonged periods; a pneumatic drill can reach 120 decibels, while a jackhammer 130 dBA. Exposure to these sound levels is damaging for any period, due to their intensity.
Employees exposed to loud noise over a prolonged period are at high risk of severe health and safety implications that can also impact productivity and the ability to work effectively. Organisations must address these workplace hazards and formulate an effective plan to mitigate the risks.
As we’ve explored, there are clear implications of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), permanent hearing loss, and tinnitus. However, noise exposure can also lead to other physical and psychological stresses and profoundly impact communication and quality of life.
Research shows that exposure to loud noise can impact the body’s stress systems. Persistent loud noises trigger a release of cortisol and adrenaline stress hormones while the sympathetic nervous system reacts by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and inflammation.
Over time this can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke, stomach problems, trouble sleeping, and impaired cognitive performance – all compounding health and safety risks in the workplace.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published a study examining the association between occupational noise exposure within US industries and occupations and health risks like hearing and cardiovascular conditions. It found that hypertension, elevated cholesterol, and hearing difficulty are more prevalent among workers exposed to noise. Another recent study showed that persistent exposure to transportation noise is associated with causing cardiovascular mortality.
NIHL can have a profound psychological effect, too. Research has shown that a person with mild hearing loss is three times as likely to experience depression, and someone with more severe hearing loss is five times more likely. Those experiencing hearing loss often prefer to avoid social situations where they find communication difficult with groups or where there may be loud background noise. Becoming isolated, not seeing friends and family, or participating in hobbies can lead to loneliness, depression and mental health issues.
As any of these physical or psychological conditions manifest, employees may experience more instances of miscommunication, tasks taking longer due to misunderstanding or struggling to hear instructions, and lower engagement in spontaneous conversations around the workplace, which can impact morale. Reduced hearing can also affect balance which may lead to higher instances of falls in the workplace.
The CDC found that employees with hearing loss are more likely to be less productive at work and underemployed or unemployed. People with hearing difficulties are twice as likely to be unemployed than people who hear well.
Therefore, noise-related injuries and stress must be mitigated before they occur or addressed as early as possible.
Organisations are bound by health and safety regulations designed to protect workers from excessive noise in the workplace. In the UK, the Control of Noise at Work Regulations (2005) state that employers must provide hearing protection for exposure above an average of 85 decibels.
Sounds above 80 decibels require a risk assessment to be carried out. OSHA requires a hearing conservation programme where there are average sounds of above 85 decibels over a typical eight-hour work shift. Such programmes include hearing exams, hearing protection and training for employees regularly exposed to loud noise. Hearing conservation programmes have been set up to protect hearing, prevent hearing loss and empower employees to safeguard themselves.
Research has shown that hearing conservation programmes can reduce the risks associated with noise exposure by between 30% and 60%. The programmes also resulted in higher levels of worker productivity and lower absenteeism where such programmes exist.
While in-ear hearing protection and defenders can protect hearing, they are short-term measures to be used alongside other controls. To be effective, ear defenders should reduce environmental sounds to 80 decibels to protect hearing. They should not, however, reduce sound to below 70 decibels as this can impede a worker’s situational awareness and ability to hear and react to warning signals or safety instructions.
Other physical protection measures include installing low-noise machinery, re-engineering existing equipment to reduce noise, and ensuring equipment is correctly maintained. Devices and apps like the NIOSH Sound Level Meter App are designed to measure workplace sound levels, enabling employees to operate within safe noise parameters.
Operationally, along with education and training, work policies can ensure that shift and break patterns and “quiet zones” allow sufficient rest from noise exposure. The NIOSH study mentioned above highlights the importance of regular screening for key physiological markers such as hearing loss, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, which were more prevalent among workers exposed to noise.
Organisations should be proactive in reducing the number of incidents from noise exposure. Unfortunately, measures are often implemented when it is too late, after an injury or irreparable damage. Part of the reason for this is that it is challenging for organisations to accurately measure the level and length of noise exposure.
There are various instruments available to measure personal noise exposure levels, but the most common is a dosimeter worn by personnel. However, there are questions about the accuracy of such apps that operate on mobile phones whilst often sitting in pockets.
Now, wearable technology like Bodytrak can help paint a more accurate picture of noise risk, while protecting against NIHL and many other workplace hazards – all through a single comprehensive device.
Bodytrak’s continuous noise monitoring feature uses a microphone outside of the earpiece that measures the sound levels at the wearer’s ear. Among other metrics, it calculates the A-weighted sound level. This metric can indicate the environmental sound levels that wearers are exposed to as they move between noise sources. Sound levels measured throughout a shift can be used to calculate the individual noise exposure, such as Time Weighted Average (TWA) and Daily Personal Noise Exposure (LEPd).
As Bodytrak measures A-weighted sound levels at the ear, it is a more reliable and accurate indication of noise than other tools. Measuring the noise exposure of the wearer can help determine the risk level of NIHL. By measuring noise levels at the ear, Bodytrak collects valuable noise exposure data as conveniently and discreetly as possible so employees can focus on what they do best.
Integrated into the smart safety solution from Bodytrak, in-ear hearing protection is available for loud environments, providing an effective noise barrier. This is known as Bodytrak’s own Hear:Safe™ earbud. The device complements existing personal protection equipment (PPE), such as ear defenders, allowing users to wear both forms of PPE for additional protection against hearing loss and to maintain effective safety protocols.
For those users not requiring hearing protection, the Bodytrak Hear:Thru™ earbud allows ambient sounds to pass into the ear to ensure the wearer can effectively communicate and maintain situational awareness.
Unlike other noise-monitoring solutions, Bodytrak also accurately measures real time physiological markers. It collects precise data on health parameters, such as core body temperature and heart rate, to indicate an employee’s physiological response to workplace stressors.
If any marker exceeds preset safe thresholds, an alert is triggered, notifying the user (via audio prompts) and supervisors (via Dashboard, SMS and email), thereby helping to prevent workplace incidents rapidly. The device can also detect falls, which is especially important for those suffering from hearing impairment and fatigue.
Devices like this can be a cost-effective alternative to other noise-monitoring devices and periodic screenings for noise-induced illnesses. They can replace random status snapshots with continuous, accurate real-time data allowing faster and more effective interventions.
There’s no wonder why managing noise exposure is crucial for many organisations across several industry sectors. The evolution of technology has empowered health and safety professionals and made their roles easier by offering valuable data on harmful noise levels and associated employee health and well-being markers. Notably, devices like Bodytrak can be worn with existing PPE and are equipped with other features that allow safe working even in the loudest environments.