What are the risks of excessive noise at work?

Last updated: 04 Mar 2020

According to the Health and Safety Executive, around 18,000 people in Britain experience deafness, ringing in the ears or other ear conditions caused by excessive noise at work.

Decibel is a measurement used to express a level of sound. Levels of noise as perceived by the human ear are usually expressed as an “A-weighted” decibel, or dB(A), to recognise that the ear is less sensitive to low frequencies of sound.

To give an idea of comparative levels of sound, a normal conversation is about 60 dB(A); a vacuum cleaner is around 70 dB(A); traffic on a busy road at a distance of 10m might be between 80 and 90 dB(A); while a chainsaw one metre away will be up to 120 dB(A). 

However, a chainsaw is not twice as loud as a conversation. Most of us perceive one sound to be twice as loud as another when they are about 10 dB apart. Therefore, to the human ear, a chainsaw will sound 32 times as loud as a conversation. 

However, the sound intensity – which is what really matters when it comes to hearing loss – will be one million times greater.

Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 80 dB(A) (twice as loud as a vacuum cleaner) can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound, the less time it takes for hearing loss to happen. NIHL is cumulative, so you’re more likely to experience it if you’re exposed for long periods.

As a simple guide, your workplace might have damaging levels of noise if people have to raise their voice when having a conversation with someone who is about 2m away; employees use noisy power tools or machinery for more than half an hour a day; or noise is intrusive, or worse, for most of the day.

Excessive noise can also interfere with communications, make it harder to hear warnings and make people less aware of their surroundings. These issues can put people at risk of injury or death. Lower levels of noise, such as those in an open plan office, can cause other problems, like affecting your ability to concentrate or causing you to feel stressed.

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