Commissioning competent technical advice on noise exposure control can be a daunting prospect, so new guidance has been published to help employers procure the help of a suitable expert.
Covid-19 has highlighted many inequalities and challenges around workplace exposure and health. It seems likely, for example, that those who have suffered workplace respiratory exposure during their working lives are among those most vulnerable to more severe Covid-19 health outcomes. Yet it may also highlight other vulnerabilities arising from occupational exposure.
In 2018, a report by Action for Hearing Loss reported that the number one work difficulty experienced by those with hearing loss was engagement with video-conferencing. This affected 75 per cent of the survey participants, compared with 45 per cent of the same group for whom participation with face-to-face meetings was difficult. At the time, this might have been seen as having a marginal impact, but for the past ten months video has been the primary means of business communication.
Such an indirect impact of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) for the affected workers also magnifies the cost to the employer. Making legally required adjustments – such as providing accessibility software for workers with hearing damage – obviously has a cost to an employer, but there are further hidden costs, leaving aside any issues of compensation or absenteeism.
Other costs include loss of experience and expertise if workers are forced to quit their jobs due to work-related hearing loss and associated costs relating to everything from investigation expenses through to fines. The cumulative cost to industry of NIHL is likely to be in excess of £400 million per annum.
The cost to the individual of hearing loss is even greater. Last summer, the Lancet Commission published a report which confirmed what many had long thought. The single biggest control factor in preventing dementia in later life is hearing protection.
At the same time, it is easy to underestimate which workers are likely to be exposed to noise at a harmful level. Obviously, workers in construction and heavy industry are at risk. However, the risk groups are in fact much broader, and range from drama teachers to drivers and dentists. Noise exposure threatens to impose costs on businesses, but also to cost workers even more in relation to their enjoyment of life, capacity to work and even their mental health.
Employers are often keen to reduce the risk of hearing damage from exposure to loud noise at work, but at a challenging time – and with other competing priorities – it’s often hard for them to determine what exactly to do. At the same time, more and more consultants and innovators offer solutions to detect and deal with harmful levels of noise exposure. In a challenging market, however, it is easy to fall prey to those offering low-cost solutions which seem to resolve the problem.
In fact, discussions the BOHS has held with HSE inspectors show it is becoming clear that businesses are being targeted by unscrupulous consultants and purveyors of acoustic solutions who charge less, but give little in return. So how do we identify the best way forward?
The UK Hearing Conservation Association, in conjunction with the Institute of Acoustics, the Association of Noise Consultants, IOSH and BOHS, has put together some smart guidance and a checklist on procuring noise control consultancy services.
In a couple of pages, the guidance reinforces just how much common sense and a commitment to actually do something about noise can achieve.
When it comes to procuring specialist consultancy services to help you control harmful noise exposure, doing your homework about what your responsibilities are, using HSE guidance, specifying your problem, doing due diligence, choosing a regulated professional and following through with recommended actions seem obvious steps, but are all too often ignored.
A quick read of HSE’s noise control case studies shows that the answers often lie in common sense adjustments to noise sources, rather than expensive control systems. For instance, using a wooden box, rather than a metal container, for dropping heavy items in, and using plastic rollers, rather than metal, on a conveyor system, catch the eye in a plethora of examples of good practice.
At the other end of the spectrum, expertise in dealing with complex issues relating to noise travel in a building or through a system may require and benefit from an acoustic specialist from the Institute of Acoustics, for example. In the understanding of complex noise sources and the interaction of noise and other health control systems, an occupational hygiene expert may be the most cost-effective and efficient solution.
Too often, there are reports of businesses investing in expensive, unnecessary or ineffectual acoustic solutions because of the failure to take advice on how to control the noise risk most effectively.
However, a further problem arises from taking advice from consultants who lack the expertise to deal with the problem at hand. The results are often shown in consultants’ noise control advice reports which are not fit for purpose and which do not enable the user to make the right decisions – whether it be about recommending the appropriate hearing protection or other controls.
In response to this, BOHS has met with HSE, the Institute of Acoustics and IOSH to determine whether there is a more effective way of improving the quality and consistency of consultants’ reports relating to preventing and reducing noise exposure.
It is hoped that together these key organisations can make it easier for employers to ensure they are making efficient changes that result in effective noise control and hearing protection. This, in turn, could have a huge impact on the wellbeing and working lives of employees in noisy work environments, and may even help reduce the long-term costs of social care and spare families the misery of dementia.
Professor Kevin Bampton is CEO of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS)
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