16 March 2022
Preventing irreversible hearing loss in construction

Living with hearing loss can be difficult, and can have far-reaching effects – from difficulties communicating and feelings of isolation, to a loss of confidence and independence. Multiple studies have explored the emotional impact of hearing loss on those who experience it, finding that hearing impaired people are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

According to the World Health Organisation, the most common causes of hearing loss, including noise exposure and ototoxic medications, are preventable. However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates that more than two million British workers are still exposed to unacceptable levels of noise at work. And, according to research published in Hearing Loss: From Multidisciplinary Teamwork to Public Health, 51% of construction workers are exposed to unsafe noise levels and between 20% and 25% have some form of hearing impairment.

Preventing unnecessary disability

Given the preventable risks of noise exposure in construction, what can employers do to fulfil their legal obligation to keep their employees safe and healthy and to reduce the risk of employment claims? Below, we’ve outlined several tips for managing noise-related risk on site.

  1. Carry out risk assessments in line with the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005

If high noise levels are identified, employers should carry out a noise assessment and take necessary action to eliminate or control the risk of noise exposure. If the noise is found to be louder than the upper limit stipulated in the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, the employer must take action to reduce the noise to “as low a level as is reasonably practicable”.

  1. Eliminate the need for noise at all

Where possible, employers should assess whether noisy practices are necessary at all. Using modern methods of construction (MMC), for example, ducts can be designed into walls rather than using noisy wall chasers.

  1. Use quieter machinery

HSE suggests that a ‘buy quiet’ purchasing and hire policy can be one of the most cost-effective measures employers can adopt in the long term. Buying or hiring quieter machinery, while it has a high upfront cost, can go on to save the cost of other noise-reduction measures such as PPE, health monitoring and training. Companies should agree an acceptable noise level, work with suppliers who can demonstrate and provide low noise designs, and might even wish to consider putting in place penalties for suppliers if the machinery they provide exceeds the maximum noise level you have set.

  1. Ensure access to quality PPE – but only as a last resort

By law, employers are required to provide PPE to employees if a) they ask for it and noise exposure levels are between the lower and upper exposure action values set out in the Control of Noise at Work Regulations, or b) noise exposure is above the upper exposure action value set out in the Regulations. However, HSE warns of the risks of overprotection; if the PPE reduces noise levels to below 70 dB, workers’ ability to communicate and hear warning signals could be affected.

It should also be remembered that PPE should not be a substitute for other noise reduction measures, but rather a final line of defence.

  1. Designated ‘noisy’ areas

All construction sites should have adequate signage that indicates areas with high noise levels and where PPE should be worn. There should also be signage to indicate quieter areas where workers can go for breaks and seek relief from noise exposure. As well as confining noisy activities to certain areas, employers can add further protections such as scheduling these activities to take place when there are fewer personnel on site.

  1. Take out adequate insurance

According to HSE, noise-induced hearing loss is the second most common cause of damages claims against employers. While of course every effort should be made to reduce noise to a safe level, a comprehensive and well-worded employers liability policy is an important backup measure. Take a look at our broad range of construction insurance policies to help your clients protect themselves against any eventuality.