Construction site safety – is noise a problem?


One of the less-reported ailments due to work is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL). In the construction sector there is understandably a lot of health and safety focus on trips and falls, falls from height, asbestos etc. However there are a lot of noisy machines in use in the building trades: as a result construction does appear in the top three industries when it comes to newly-reported deafness due to work.

Top of the list by some distance is manufacturing, with 5.0 cases reported per 100,000 workers: but second in the unenviable list is construction with 2.7, followed closely by extraction with 2.5. It is a fact that since 2007 every single case reported has been a man. These cases are where a claim is being made for disablement benefit.

Far greater in number are those where a survey is carried out on the self-reported cases of worker injuries. Annual figures are available through LFS for the year to 30 September and within workers across Great Britain 22,000 reported hearing problems due to their work in the newly-available 2010/11 tables. (The rate equates to 72 cases per 100,000 workers). This was a slight overall increase from 21,000 in the previous year and significantly higher than in 2008/9 when there was an all-time low of 17,000. However the worst year since the Millennium was 2006/7 which saw 26,000 reported hearing problems.

Reducing Noise Impact

What can be done to reduce the effects of noise on the workforce? Obviously the provision of ear defenders is important, but they must be tested and certified models that guard against the dangerous audio ranges and provide the correct type of protection.

Reducing the noise at source is equally important. The suppliers of machinery have legal obligations to supply equipment that conforms to noise regulations, and they must be maintained to continue those levels, with no extra vibrations or any removal of sound-deadening panels, shields or baffles on site. Where the nature of the equipment and of the activity itself – for example grinding and cutting of metal – is inherently noisy, the duration of the noise must be minimised in addition to the absolute insistence on the wearing of proper hearing defences.

What is NIHL? It is due to excessive noise energy suffered over an extended period and it is an irreversible form of deafness. Health checks can test for it: it is suffered I the 4-6 kHz range of hearing. Audiometry is a screening technique that should be used wherever needed.

Testing and Risk Assessment

There is regulation around this issue: the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require health surveillance to be carried out where there is an identified disease or health condition connected to the work being carried out: where valid techniques (like audiometry) are available to detect it: where it is reasonably likely that it may occur: and where it may provide some protection to workers.

So risk assessments, which you may wish to carry out properly using a firm of trained health and safety consultants, are required to identify what work on site might result in NIHL, and thus need surveillance.

Employers should carry out Corrective Control Measures: and they should provide:

  • Regular hearing checks
  • Information to employees on the results
  • Safe storage of the records
  • Further doctor advice where required

The threshold beyond which this should be regarded as a potential hazard is not hard and fast, but it is generally held by safety consultants and other professionals that areas regularly suffering 90dB(A) noise require measures of this kind.