How noise pollution within a working environment can affect our hearing and wellbeing
According to the European Survey of Working Conditions, 'approx. 20% of European workers are exposed half or more of their working time to noise so loud that they would have to raise their voice to talk to other people'1.
Surprisingly, some of the noisiest workplaces are not necessarily the sectors you might immediately think of. In fact, office space and hospitality venues can be just as noisy as manufacturing and production facilities, with bars and nightclub staff exposed to ambient noise levels of up to 85 dB for several hours a day2.
Whilst working from home may be considered a quieter location for work over a traditional office environment, 40% of the European population is exposed to road traffic noise at levels exceeding 55 db(A)3 at any given time, indicating the home environment isn't immune to the noises associated with an inner-city or business park setting.
This has been supported by recent research conducted in the UK which has indicated that 170,000 people suffer from hearing damage due to noise at work4. Reducing noise pollution when working regardless of the environment should therefore be a priority as it not only benefits our hearing health, but our entire wellbeing.
The effects of noise in the workplace
Many people correctly associate hearing health problems with noisy work environments. Again, production, manufacturing and distribution facilities are often considered more of a distraction. However, open-plan office space has become so popular over the last few years that it presents challenges of its own when achieving an acceptable level of ambient noise. In these environments, distracting noises stem from sources such as air conditioning, phone calls, foot traffic and loud voices.
With increasing sound levels, the 'Lombard effect' takes place (an involuntary tendency of speakers to increase the level of their voice against excessive noise pollution). As a result, this increases the overall level of background noise within the office space, leading to concentration issues and lower performance. Moreover, these noises can impact our overall health by causing distress in our bodies, consciously or unconsciously.
Unfortunately, stress can lead to a variety of psychosomatic problems such as headaches, elevated blood pressure, concentration issues, fatigue, digestive disorders, irritability, strokes, a heart attack, increased susceptibility to colds, depression and other minor infects56.
As it currently stands in the UK, the regulations for an acceptable noise level in the workplace doesn’t come into effect until noise pollution reaches above 80 dB(A). In comparison, other countries such as Germany have an acceptable noise level for office workers that should not exceed 55dB(A)7.
Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005
To protect employees from excessive noise within their workplace, the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 came into effect in Great Britain in 2006, to include all industry sectors. The regulation was updated in 2008 to also include all music and entertainment sectors. Under the new regulations employers are required to:
- Assess the risks to their employees from noise at work
- Take action to reduce the noise exposure that produces those risks
- Provide employees with hearing protection when noise exposure cannot be reduced enough by using other methods
- Provide workers, exposed to noises at or above 85dB(A), with the correct hearing protection; employees are required to wear the provided hearing protection
- Ensure the legal limits on noise exposure are not exceeded; (87dB(A) on a daily level or a max. sound pressure of 140dB(C))
- Provide employees with information, instruction and training
- Carry out health surveillance where there is a risk to health.
Overcoming excessive noise in the workplace
Any employer will increase their employees’ happiness, wellbeing and performance by improving the office acoustics through reducing:
- Direct sound by not placing too many employees close together and the potential of dedicated rooms for meetings and providing quiet areas
- Avoiding hard and shiny surfaces (e.g. windows, desks, hard floors) which reflect sounds and adding soft furnishings and surfaces such as carpets, paintings, absorbing desk solutions, chairs and plants
- Reverberation which goes in hand with removing hard surfaces. Acoustic foam in ceilings or as absorbing materials placed around the office will support the reduction of reverberation.
Overcoming excessive noise at home
Since the emergence of COVID-19 many of us now use our homes as our new place of work. Though some of us enjoy working from home, it does not always offer us the ideal working environment we might usually have.
Depending on where our house or living space is situated (towards a noisy street for example) and the amount of people working from home or being home schooled (shared or separate rooms) has a considerable impact on the noise level. Overcoming excessive background noise at home can be achieved through:
- Finding a place to avoid the most distracting background noises from outside of the home
- Place your desk at the thickest wall in your room to reduce potential noises
- Ensure good room acoustics in the room you are working in by adding plants, paintings, furniture and carpet(s)
- When it is unavoidable that the children must be at home, try to agree on activities they can focus on while you work
- Some people enjoy background music, such as classical music, to distract their brain from the surrounding noises
- Invest in noise-cancelling headphones to block and filter surrounding noises.
To support employers who conduct hearing assessments to monitor and address the hearing health of their employees, we have developed a range of accredited audiometry screening courses focused specifically for occupational health and primary care professionals.
Available as either a two-day competency or one-day refresher course, our courses provide delegates with continuous professional development (CPD) to maintain, develop and raise professional performance standards for industrial audiometry screening programmes.
Both training sessions are based on a recommended syllabus from the British Society of Audiology (BSA), the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) ‘The control of noise at work regulations 2005’ and industry-specific requirements.
For more information on our occupational health audiometry training courses please visit our webpage, contact our customer support team on +44 (0)1865 880 846 or email us at email@example.com.
1Reported in Eurostat. Work and health in the EU: a statistical portrait. ISBN 92-894-7006-2
2Woltmann AJ. Assessing the Occupational Nosie Exposure of Bartenders. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/5800
3WHO. Burden of disease from environmental noise. Quantification of health life years lost in Europe. ISBN 978-92-890-0229-5
4Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Health Surveillance for Noise Induced Hearing Loss. https://www.hse.gov.uk/vibration/hav/roadshow/al9.pdf
5WHO. Night noise guidelines for Europe. ISBN 978-92-890-4173-7
6European Commission. Noise impacts on health. Science for Environment Policy, ISBN 978-92-79-43693-2, January 2015, Issue 47
7Ausschuss für Arbeitsstätten. ASR A3.7. 2018