The New ‘Control of Noise at Work’ Regulations 2005 came into force in April 2006 and at the same time, the Noise at Work Regulations 1989 will be repealed. Brining with it 5 dB reductions is allowable levels, more levels to monitor, Limit values, compulsory health surveillance, weekly averaging and tighter hearing protection controls, this piece of law has more to it than might appear on the surface.
The legislation text can be downloaded from the HSE web site and a guidance book is available from HSE books, which is a must for anyone with potential noise risks. This article looks at the main changes from the original regulations as well as some of the issues employers are going to face as a result.
How the Law Came into Being
The EU Physical Agents Directive travelled a long and tortuous path, starting in 1993 as a proposal to deal with a multitude of ‘agents’, which were noise, vibration, optical radiation and non-optical electromagnetic fields. This idea was short lived due to clear problems with trying to put all that information into one document. In 1999, sense prevailed and the vibration element was split out into a separate directive. In 2001, a proposal for the Noise part was put forward. The other bits are lagging behind somewhat although there is movement on the optical radiation directive!
Eventually, through committee after committee and draft after draft, we are given the Physical Agents (Noise) and the Physical Agents (Vibration) Directives, with which the member states must lay down legislation within a given time. The Vibration directive became law in June 2005 whilst the Noise Regulations will be with us in April 2006. It is the latter that will be dealt with in this article, which looks at some of the main changes and what they mean. It is by no means comprehensive and is no substitute for reading the regulations and guidance in full or attending a competence training course.
So what’s new and what does it all mean
Following wide industry consultation, the regulations are now ready for introduction in April 2006. The following points detail the main changes from the original Noise at Work Regulations 1989, which is to be repealed.
The main thrust of this new law is to lower the acceptable levels of noise exposure, above which both employers and employees are required to take certain actions (see figure 3). This is based on medical evidence suggesting that people may actually be prone to damage from continuous nose exposure at levels as low as 70dBA. Although the levels in the new regulations have not been set that low, the proportion of people at risk is dramatically reduced compared with the 1989 law.
The first point to note is that there are 6 levels to monitor in the new regulations, compared with 3 in the 1989 version. It is also clear that the action levels have been reduced by 5dB each. DeciBels are logarithmic and don’t work like normal numbers so this 5dB reduction actually equates in real terms to a 68% lowering of the levels! This means that a process that only just meets the existing criteria, will have to be reduced in sound energy output terms by 68% to maintain compliance.
New to the world of noise at work assessments is the concept of an Exposure Limit Value, set at 87dB(A) Lep’d. This is in place such that no employee shall be exposed to this level or above under any circumstances! On the face of it, this seems a tough one to deal with, except that hearing protection can be taken into account (as described below) unlike the action values. What this does mean is that care should be taken in the assessment of which hearing protection to use and it might be wise not to use the SNR method (explained later) for that reason.
Weekly Averaging Derogation
If workers are exposed to high levels of noise for only a small part of a week then, under the new regulations it is possible to average the exposure they receive over the whole week, thus reducing the Lep’d. Care should be used when applying this derogation that the exposure is truly over a short enough duration and that it is not used simply as a means of circumnavigating noise control measures.