Noise is of the most widespread and underestimated of workplace hazards. Workers exposed to high noise levels are at risk of suffering permanent noise induced hearing loss. Noise at lower levels can also be a hazard.

The Workplace Health and Safety Regulations 2012 limits exposure to 85 decibels (A) averaged over 8 hours, with a peak level of 140dB(C). Exposure to noise levels over this will lead to permanent damage.

Is noise is a problem in your workplace and what should you do about it?

  • Consult with workers regarding the noise levels and what effects it might be having on them.
  • Request that your employer undertake a noise assessment, part of their legal duty.
  • If the noise level either exceeds the exposure standard or is close to exceeding it, ensure your employer understands that this is a risk to workers and that, under the Regulations, this risk must be assessed and controlled. 

    Where personal hearing protectors are necessary, it is important that these be effective: it may mean fitting these devices individually and so on. Just handing out rubber earplugs may not be very useful. There are very high tech devices now available on the market, for example earpieces specifically designed for certain levels and types of noise and individually fitted. See the HearingTech website for an example of such products.  

  • If the noise level is not above the exposure standard, it may still be a hazard (see the information below) and you can have this addressed under Section 21 of the OHS Act.

Why is noise a problem?

Permanent damage:Many workers are exposed to noise levels well above the exposure standard. This can apply to workers in manufacturing, transport and in the hospitality industry, particularly those working in areas where there is live entertainment, or in a "disco" or club environment.

If workers have to raise their voice to make themselves heard to someone who is one metre or less away, then the noise level is probably above the legal limit. This is about the level of heavy traffic. This level of noise can cause tinnitus (a ringing, buzzing or roaring sound in the ears which can be very disturbing and can interfere with sleep) and permanent hearing damage.

However, many employees in other workplaces are affected by noise in the areas they work. Noise at well below the levels it can cause damage to hearing can be a hazard in a number of ways:

Communication problems: Trying to hear people in noisy surroundings requires extra concentration and strain. Messages or instructions can be misunderstood, creating confusion, frustration and safety problems. Having to raise your voice, or shout, to be heard above noise levels can lead to throat and voice disorders.

Fatigue and stress: Constant noise makes it difficult to concentrate and adds to the fatigue of work. There can often be a constant, annoying level of noise in some workplaces due to customers, the noise of gaming machines, background music, machinery and so on. Furthermore, sometimes it is very difficult to find any "quiet" areas in which to take a break, for example sometimes even the staff canteen can be noisy.

Noise of this type is very annoying and is a recognised workplace "stressor" (ie a cause of stress). Nerve impulses sent to the brain, which recognises them as sound, are also sent to other parts of the body stimulating the production of hormones such as adrenalin. This may result in:

  • irritability,
  • tiredness or nervousness,
  • interference in concentration,
  • increase in incidence of accidents,
  • long term ill health.

Safety hazard: Noise can distract attention, or drown out the sound of a malfunctioning machine, an approaching forklift, an alarm signal or a warning shout.

Productivity and profitability: Studies indicate that high noise levels are associated with high levels of absenteeism and staff turnover.

Acoustic Shock: an issue particularly with workers using headsets - this is where the wearer is exposed to short but very loud bursts of noise which can temporarily or permanently damage the wearer's hearing. It is also reported as being very painful to receive. There have been a number of compensation cases both in Victoria and around the world. In the UK, British Telecom paid out £93,000 to one worker. The National Acoustics Laboratories website has more information on acoustic shock. 

Ototoxic chemicals:the combined exposure to noise and other agents such as organic solvents, carbon monoxide, some metals and other ototoxic chemicals can increase the risk of hearing loss. ('ototoxic' chemicals are chemicals that are poisonous to the inner ear or the vestibulocochlear nerve. Because the inner ear is involved in both hearing and balance, ototoxicity can result in disturbances of either or both of these senses)

In areas where tasks require concentration, the average daily noise exposure should not be above 50-55 dB(A).

If you want further information on noise, its effects and what can be done about it, contact your union.

In August 2010, Safe Work Australia released a research report: Occupational Noise-Induced Hearing Loss in Australia which revealed from July 2002 to June 2007 there were approximately 16,500 workers’ compensation claims for industrial deafness involving permanent impairment due to noise. It concluded that despite 'abundant evidence that eliminating the noise source or implementing engineering noise controls is the most appropriate way to reduce the risk of occupational noise-induced hearing loss, providing personal protective equipment appears to be the preferred risk reduction measure.'

The ACTU believes the following issues must be addressed:

  • the efficacy of the current exposure level of 85dB. It has been estimated that reducing the exposure level to 80dB would reduce the risk of hearing impairment from 16 per cent to 3 per cent; 

  • the suggestion that impulsive noise (or pulsed sound) is a greater hazard than continuous noise;

  • the combined exposure to noise and other agents, for example: vibration, organic solvents, carbon monoxide and other ototoxic chemicals and drugs, and some metals;

  • the potential effects of infra and ultra sound;

  • acoustic shock;
  • responsibilities for designers, manufacturers and importers; and

  • the non-auditory effects of noise.

These issues were identified by NOHSC (an earlier incarnation of what is now Safe Work Australia) in 2001, yet are not addressed by the current standard and code in any way. The ACTU position is that government must be more pro-active in improving its regulatory material in order to prevent noise-related injury and disease.

The ACTU believes that amendments to the standard could include, at least, reducing the occupational exposure level and introducing action levels (as in the UK), introducing exposure levels for infra and/or ultra sound and putting upstream duties in the standard (ie in legislation) rather than as advisory in the code (is also a safe design issue). 

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