Last reviewed 3 September 2015

Small to medium-sized businesses continue to find it difficult to access basic, signposting information on hearing protection, and find the process “daunting” and “even intimidating”. Vicky Powell speaks to the British Safety Industry Federation about its new campaign on hearing protection and asks why noise exposure continues to be a problem in British workplaces.

A million workers currently at risk in the UK

It is only within the past 40 years that serious efforts to reduce excessive noise at work have been initiated. Because of this, some people may believe that the recognition of occupational noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a relatively new phenomenon. However, research conducted on historical medical manuscripts, books, and articles has shown that the association of hearing changes with loud noise exposure was recognised for centuries before systematic attempts were made to limit exposures.

Yet, despite this long history of understanding how noise exposure affects hearing, NIHL continues to raise challenges in British workplaces today.

Steve Perkins, the Chief Executive of the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), recently warned, “It is estimated that one million employees in Britain are exposed to levels of noise which puts their hearing at risk.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by the British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF), which recently quoted figures indicating that almost 10 million people in the UK today are deaf or have some degree of hearing loss — almost 1 in 6 people. The trade safety body warns that this figure is expected to rise — not fall as might be expected in the case of a largely preventable health condition — to around 14.5 million by 2031.

The problem extends into the workplace and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has noted, “Throughout all industry, industrial hearing loss remains the occupational disease with the highest number of civil claims accounting for about 75% of all occupational disease claims.”

The importance of basic information

It was in response to the above concerns that the BSIF recently launched its Listen Today, Hear Tomorrow campaign, aimed at addressing the issue of hearing loss due to work-related causes in small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

The BSIF organises a number of product groups for manufacturers and suppliers of personal protection equipment and safety services, one of which is the Hearing Protection Product Group.

Frank Angear, General Manager of BSIF, says, “The Hearing Protection Product Group expressed concern that guidance on noise control and hearing protection is difficult for SMEs to access, and if they sought to use HSE guidance, it is, necessarily, broad ranging, technically based, and daunting or even intimidating for a new enquirer from a small business.”

With these points in mind, BSIF launched its Listen Today, Hear Tomorrow campaign, emphasising straightforward and “first stage” guidance that can then signpost those needing additional and more in-depth help to the most appropriate sources.

In particular, the initiative highlights the long latency nature of NIHL, and the importance of listening to the safety message now to give workers the best opportunity of avoiding work-related hearing loss in the future.

Reaching the right people

Frank Angear says that raising awareness and emphasising risk assessment is key to managing exposure to noise-related hazards in the workplace.

Commenting on the aims of the Listen Today, Hear Tomorrow campaign, he said, “Because hearing damage can take a long time to become apparent, there are many, many people who work in noisy environments unaware that either control or protection is necessary. We hope to make the basic information easily available and understandable and as a first step make workers and employers aware of the need to assess the risk and then, if they think they may have a noise hazard, guide them on the next steps to take.”

The new campaign was recently launched at the Safety and Health Expo which took place from 16 to 18 June 2015 at the ExCel conference centre in London. Supporters of the initiative include:

  • BOHS

  • Hearing Link

  • HSE

  • the Institute of Occupational Medicine

  • the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health

  • Safety Groups UK

  • the TUC.

The initiative has been publicised in the health and safety press and also via social media, whilst members of BSIF will use the campaign material to provide guidance for their customers. The charity Safety Groups UK has also pledged to distribute the campaign material via their regional group meetings.

Key basic points

The BSIF has emphasised within its campaign the hierarchy of control measures to consider in the case of noise hazards, as follows.

  • Stage 1: The best solution is to eliminate the noise hazard altogether, for example by replacing noisy equipment or changing a noisy process.

  • Stage 2: If elimination is impossible, then employers should consider substitution, ie undertaking the noisy process in a different way or perhaps substituting a quieter machinery component for a noisy one.

  • Stage 3: If the process or equipment cannot be made quieter, then employers should limit the transmission of noise, for example by acoustic screens, silencers or moving the process away from workers.

  • Stage 4: If the noise cannot be engineered out, then employers should consider implementing administrative controls, such as making it policy to buy low noise equipment.

  • Stage 5: If administrative controls are not enough then PPE should be considered, which, in the case of noise hazards, will involve hearing protection.

As part of the campaign, BSIF is keen to highlight the following basic information to SMEs:

  • Hearing protection is a last resort but must be used until noise risks are under control.

  • It is important to choose the correct level of protection but this will not usually be the highest available.

  • It is essential to make hearing protection suitable for the user and their work activities, so that they can use it comfortably with any other personal protective equipment or equipment they have to use

  • Hearing protection should be worn at all times in the noisy area. As an example, BSIF says removing protection for just five minutes out of one hour will reduce the protection achieved by more than half.

Best practice and myths about hearing protection

The BSIF is also eager to dispel a number of myths about hearing protection. For example, many people believe it is best to use the highest level of protection available. In fact, the trade body says, users will find it uncomfortable and isolating if they use too high a level of protection and will be more likely to remove it. Therefore, the BSIF advises choosing the correct level of protection for the level and duration of the noise hazard.

Another myth is that workers will be unable to hear anything when wearing hearing protection. Again, the BSIF says this is incorrect and wearing hearing protection does not block out all sound, but simply reduces it. Users actually hear more than they expect to.

The HSE also warns that hearing protection will only provide good protection when used properly and fitted correctly. Users must be instructed in its correct fitting and use.

In conclusion, the BSIF says that the use of hearing protection as a long term noise control method should be considered as “the last resort” and only used to complement other control measures in place to reduce the risk caused by the hazard.

While hearing protection may have a place in a hearing conservation programme, employers in SMEs would be wise to approach its use with care, and only as part of a far wider and long-term approach, designed to protect workers’ hearing, and prevent civil liability claims, in years to come.