• International Workplace
  • 25 April 2017

Modern life damaging workers’ hearing, but who’s responsible?

Exposure to high levels of noise at work is one of the main causes of preventable hearing loss worldwide and as an employer it is your responsibility to eliminate or reduce risk of hearing damage through work. However, technological advances that employees are exposed to outside of work could also be contributing to their exposure to unhealthy noise levels.

Rebecca S Dewey, Research Fellow in Neuroimaging, University of Nottingham, said:

“In the UK, anyone exposed to noise levels of 85dB or more in the workplace must be given hearing protection and be monitored for damage to their hearing. But mp3 players and mobile phones allow us to exceed that noise level with little more than a disclaimer from the manufacturers.

“A typical personal audio device will produce around 100dB, and specialist headphones could take this even higher. If someone were employed to work in a noise level of 100dB, they would not be allowed more than five minutes’ exposure per shift. After about 15 minutes, they would risk serious damage to their hearing.”

Aside from advising employees about the associated dangers to their hearing, there is little an employer can do about devices workers choose to use outside of work, making it all the more important to ensure they are informed about and protected from any noise risks at the workplace. Those risks aren’t always as obvious as noise on a construction site.

The HSE provides the following examples of cases where an employee has suffered hearing damage at work:

Dye house

A dyer who worked in a dyehouse for 15 years had a hearing check and was found to have 50% hearing loss at the age of 37. He now has problems using the phone, and needs an amplifier. Traffic is hard to hear unless he is right next to it, so crossing a road becomes stressful. When driving he often stays in third gear too long as he can't hear the engine revving. Hearing loss could have been prevented with hearing protection.


A woman working in the textiles industry only realised something needed to be done about her hearing loss when at the age of 40 she could not hear the phone ringing any more. Such hearing loss could have been prevented in the short-term with hearing protection. In the longer term, other ways of reducing exposure included quieter machines, maintenance, and changing job patterns.


A trombone player suffered dulling of his hearing after 20 years of playing. These problems may have been avoided if the orchestras he played in had tried different layouts or used risers that allowed him to play over the heads of those in front – rather than use them as human sound absorbers! He could also have tried to get used to wearing flat response earplugs so that he could still hear all frequencies.


A 24-year-old DJ found that, after working in a club where the sound system was particularly loud, he went home with a ringing sensation and it took several days for his ears to recover. The ringing in one ear has never completely stopped and he has become sensitive to loud music. He is now careful to wear suitable earplugs when DJ-ing.

By law, as an employer, you must assess and identify measures to eliminate or reduce risks from exposure to noise so that you can protect the hearing of your employees.

The HSE advises that there are many ways of reducing noise and noise exposure – often a combination of methods works best. First think about how to remove the loud noise altogether. If that is not possible, do all you can to control the noise at source, consider redesigning the workplace and reorganising working patterns.

For example, the HSE says, consider the following:

  • Use a different, quieter process or quieter equipment:
    • Can you do the work in some other quieter way?
    • Can you replace whatever is causing the noise with something that is less noisy?
    • Introduce a low-noise purchasing policy for machinery and equipment.
  • Introduce engineering controls:
    • Avoid metal-on-metal impacts, e.g. line chutes with abrasion-resistant rubber, and reduce drop heights.
    • Vibrating machine panels can be a source of noise – add material to reduce vibration ('damping').
    • Isolate vibrating machinery or components from their surroundings, e.g. with antivibration mounts or flexible couplings.
    • Fit silencers to air exhausts and blowing nozzles.
  • Modify the paths by which the noise travels through the air to the people exposed:
    • Erect enclosures around machines to reduce the amount of noise emitted into the workplace or environment.
    • Use barriers and screens to block the direct path of sound.
    • Position noise sources further away from workers.
  • Design and lay out the workplace for low noise emission:
    • Use absorptive materials within the building to reduce reflected sound, e.g. open cell foam or mineral wool.
    • Keep noisy machinery and processes away from quieter areas.
    • Design the workflow to keep noisy machinery out of areas where people spend most of their time.
  • Limit the time spent in noisy areas – every halving of the time spent in a noisy area will reduce noise exposure by 3dB.

 More information is available from International Workplace’s A-Z guide on Noise at Work and the HSE’s Noise at Work guidance.