We have undertaken many noise assessments over a range of industries and a common approach to controlling exposure to noise is to wear hearing protection. However the HSE would advise that this should not be relied upon and that alternative controls should be considered. The problem with this approach is often cited as the prohibitive costs involved to design out noise.
Clearly a quick fix is to ensure that employees are protected from excessive exposure to noise is to provide some type of hearing protection. For many employers it seems that just providing hearing protection is considered the extent of their responsibilities. The truth is that is far from the case. If you don’t educate people to why the controls are necessary what chance do you have of them using it! Clearly as well as education there also needs to be supervision and enforcement; this is important because too much noise is not an obvious health risk and damage to hearing is progressive over a long period.
Recently in noise surveys we have found employees clearly flouting the company policy on hearing protection and in one case particularly an employee with ear defenders dirty and damaged and not doing the job they should be. We asked where the supervision was and the response from management was; we provided it, wearing it is down to them.
These cases show why the HSE expect more robust controls to be developed as part of a plan to manage risks from noise in the workplace. Some controls such as ensuring equipment is well maintained should be easy to organise as could implementing a purchase policy that consider noise output before new equipment is brought in. Providing areas where employees can get away from noise or reducing noise at source can be more challenging but should be considered.
Where hearing protection is needed to protect employees from the here and now then it’s time to think about involving them in choosing the right type of protection and providing training on why it’s needed, then supervising its use. If these controls are implemented then hearing protection does have a viable role to play in protecting the workforce.