The real impact of noise in the workplace

Reading Time: 6 minutes
by Constanze Schmuck
Published 20/04/2021

Have you ever really thought about what noise pollution at work can do to our hearing as well as our wellbeing?

According to the European Survey of Working Conditions, approx. 20% of European workers are exposed to noise that’s so loud they need to raise their voice to talk to others. Not just occasionally, but for 50% or more of their time at work.1

What’s even more surprising is that some of the noisiest workplaces aren’t necessarily the sectors that immediately spring to mind. Office space and hospitality venues can actually be just as noisy as manufacturing and production facilities, with bar and nightclub staff being exposed to ambient noise levels of up to 85 dB for several hours a day.2

Even working from home doesn’t provide a guaranteed noise-free space, with 40% of the European population being exposed to road traffic noise levels that exceed 55 dB outside their own home,3 and so experiencing similar noise levels to an inner-city or business park setting.

Perhaps the biggest concern comes from research that indicates 170,000 people in the UK suffer from hearing damage due to noise at work.4

More about the real effects of noise in the workplace

Many people already put hearing health problems down to noisy work environments, with production, manufacturing, and distribution facilities considered to be the biggest culprits. However, the growth in open-plan offices presents a challenge of its own when aiming to achieve acceptable ambient noise levels. In these environments, distracting noises can stem from unexpected sources such as air conditioning, phone calls, foot traffic, and loud voices.

Increasing sound levels can also lead to the 'Lombard effect' (an involuntary tendency of speakers to increase the level of their voice against excessive noise pollution). Ironically, this increases the overall level of background noise within the office, which ultimately leads to concentration issues and lower performance.

It’s important to note that these issues don’t just affect our hearing, but excess noise can also cause distress in our bodies, either consciously or unconsciously. Stress can also lead to a variety of psychosomatic problems such as headaches, elevated blood pressure, concentration issues, fatigue, digestive disorders, irritability, increased susceptibility to colds, depression, and even a stroke or heart attack.5/6

What are the regulations for managing noise at work?

As it currently stands in the UK, the regulation for an acceptable noise level in the workplace sits at above 80 dB(A). In comparison, other countries such as Germany have an acceptable noise level for office workers that should not exceed 55 dB(A).7

To protect employees from excessive noise within the workplace, the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 came into effect for all industry sectors in the UK in 2006. It was updated again in 2008 to include all music and entertainment sectors.

Under these 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 can’t be sufficiently reduced by other methods
  • Provide workers exposed to noises at or above 85 dB(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 (87 dB(A) on a daily level or a maximum sound pressure of 140 dB(C))
  • Provide employees with information, instruction, and training
  • Carry out health surveillance where there is a risk to health.

How you can reduce excessive noise in the workplace

Employers can increase the happiness, wellbeing, and performance of employees by simply improving the office acoustics:

  • Reduce direct sound by spacing employees further apart, offering dedicated rooms for meetings, and providing quiet areas
  • Avoid hard and shiny surfaces (such as windows, desks, and hard floors) which reflect sounds
  • Add more soft furnishings such as carpets, paintings, absorbing desk solutions, chairs, and plants. Using foam ceilings or absorbing materials will also help to reduce reverberation

How you can reduce excessive noise at home

Since COVID-19 emerged, many people now work from home for the majority of their time. Whilst some people prefer this way of working, it doesn’t always provide the ideal environment for our health.

The location of your house or office space (towards a noisy street for example), alongside the number of people working from home (in shared or separate rooms) can have a considerable impact on your surrounding noise level. Here are some ways you can help to reduce excessive noise at home:

  • Find the place in your home that’s furthest (or most protected) from any distracting background noises outside
  • Place your desk against the thickest wall in your room to reduce potential external noises
  • Ensure there are good acoustics in the room you are working from by adding plants, paintings, furniture, and carpet
  • If you enjoy it, listening to background music such as classical (ideally without words) can distract your brain from other surrounding noises
  • Invest in noise-cancelling headphones to block or filter surrounding noises.

All-in-all, reducing noise pollution wherever you work should be a huge priority for employers and employees.  It will not only benefit your hearing health, but your entire wellbeing too.

How our accredited occupational health audiometry courses can help

Amplivox has developed a range of accredited audiometry screening courses specifically for occupational health and primary care professionals. The aim is to support employers to be able to conduct quality hearing assessments so they can consistently monitor and address the hearing health of their employees.

Our courses are available as either a two-day competency or one-day refresher, and they provide delegates with continuous professional development (CPD) to maintain, develop, and raise professional performance for industrial audiometry screening programmes.

Training sessions are all 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.

 

References

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