Noise At Work

and its Negative Health Impacts on Your Body

Noise At Work and Its Negative Health Impacts on Your Body

A recent study (1) reported that occupational noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is prevalent among Australian workers, most notably among male workers.

Prolonged exposure to loud noises and certain types of sounds can have a major impact on our overall quality of life. In fact, loud noise at work does not only represent the risk of hearing loss, but has been found to have far-reaching effects such as disturbing the normal rhythm of the heart, a condition known, as atrial fibrillation (2).

The study mentioned above, supported by similar studies, have shown clear evidence that excessive noise at work has a negative impact on a worker’s health and that NIHL, through the impacts both on the physical and mental well-being of employees, results in an overall loss of productivity.

In the following article, we will highlight the effect of work-related noise and how it has a negative health impact on the body. We will also look at noise-induced hearing loss and how noise pollution specifically affects workers in different industries.

Occupational Hygiene can be understood as the science behind workplace health and safety. While the official definition provides some context regarding the task of an Occupational Hygienist, it does not explain what specific areas of a business or organisation would require the advice of an Occupational Hygienist.

What Is Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) refers to hearing loss caused by sustained exposure to loud noises, typically over a long period of time. The more a person is working around loud noise, the greater their risk of suffering hearing loss.

While noise is a problem in many different industries such as hospitality (e.g. noisy venues), Transport & Logistics (e.g. airport baggage handlers) or even Dentistry, certain occupations have higher than normal rates of NIHL (3) including:

Not all sound is harmful to the ear and not all types of sound leads to hearing loss. Sound level, noise dose and the length of exposure dictates the potential risk.

Only sounds above 85 decibels are considered to be a potential risk and a source of hearing loss, depending on how often and how long a person is exposed.

For comparison, a normal conversation level occurs at around 50 decibels, while a vacuum cleaner is around 70 decibels. People with untreated hearing loss, often struggle to hear sounds at this decibel range and lower, or different sound pitches.
In a noisy office environment peak noise of up to 95 decibels can be measured, which also can represent a risk of hearing damage. More common sources that are associated with hearing loss, are for example jackhammers with 110 dB or jet engines with 140-150 dB(c).

Not all sound is harmful to the ear and not all types of sound leads to hearing loss. Sound level, noise dose and the length of exposure dictates the potential risk.

Only sounds above 85 decibels are considered to be a potential risk and a source of hearing loss, depending on how often and how long a person is exposed.

For comparison, a normal conversation level occurs at around 50 decibels, while a vacuum cleaner is around 70 decibels. People with untreated hearing loss, often struggle to hear sounds at this decibel range and lower, or different sound pitches.
In a noisy office environment peak noise of up to 95 decibels can be measured, which also can represent a risk of hearing damage. More common sources that are associated with hearing loss, are for example jackhammers with 110 dB or jet engines with 140-150 dB(c).

To put it simply, prolonged exposure to noises between 85 decibels and 110 or more decibels can lead to noise-induced hearing loss. Noise surpassing this range, can cause immediate and permanent hearing loss, even after just one exposure.
A widely underestimated source of high pitch noise is “impact noise” that is produced, for example, when a steel hammer is hitting metal or bottles colliding in a bottle factory. Impact noise, while possibly very short-term in length and exposure, can have a peak noise level of above 140dB(c) which is considered to
have an immediate and potentially lasting impact on a person’s hearing.

Note, that noise sources such as the ones mentioned above represent a risk if workers are exposed to the noise without wearing properly fitted Hearing Protection.

Noise at Work

Indication of noise levels of various sources:

Sound

Decibel level

Whisper

20

Inside Home

40

Speech

50-65

Office

45-70

Passing Heavy Traffic

80-90

Noisy Factory

90-95

Nightclub

100

Jackhammer

110

Threshold of pain

130

Jet Engine

140-150

Firearm

155-165

How Chemicals at Work can Accelerate Hearing Loss.

The impact of noise at work can be amplified if workers are exposed to certain chemicals called “Ototoxins” (4). This group of chemicals are known for their ability to enhance the effect of noise on the human body. Known Ototoxins are for example, solvents such as Ethanol (highly concentrated alcohol), which is used in a variety of applications such as the production of cleaning agents or food items. Other known ototoxic substances are Butanol (lubricants or plastics), certain metals (Arsenic, Lead, Mercury) and Carbon Monoxide (preservative) or Paraquat (herbicide).

Even though the effects of Ototoxins are widely documented, current exposure standards do not account for workers being exposed to a combination of Ototoxins and noise, and only account for the impact of noise.

What Are the Results of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss?

Exposure to loud noise over a prolonged period, can result in damage to the soft tissue in the inner ear. It can destroy the hair cells in the cochlea, the internal ear and can result in permanent damage.
While the mental stress represents a large impact on the lives of workers with hearing deficiencies, being unable to hear, everyday sounds or safety instructions can also present serious safety implications. For example, being unable to hear sirens, alarms or verbal warnings can be hazardous and may impact a worker’s ability to perform their duties safely in certain work environments.

Aside from these points the consequences of hearing loss include:

Noise assessment at Work

How Does Noise Pollution Impact Mental Health?

Noise pollution and frequent exposure to loud noises are considered to have a negative impact on the mental health of workers because it can trigger stress or anxiety. The brain is continually monitoring sounds for signs of danger. Noise being an audible sign of danger, thereby increases a person’s sensitivity and may create stress.

NIHL can result in sleep disturbances, such as having difficulties falling asleep or waking up during the night. Sleep disturbance or interruption can affect the ability of workers to focus, which in-turn impacts performance and quality of work. The frustration arising from “not hearing well” and the impact on performance can lead to serious mental health issues and depression (5). The impact of hearing loss on social interaction and personal relationships can also be serious.

How Does Noise Pollution Impact Physical Health?

The impact on the mental wellbeing of a person from noise pollution can put strain on a person’s physical health. Recent studies have reported an association between long-term noise exposure and increased rates of cardiovascular disease (6). The effects of noise on the body of workers are measurable and can be detected.

The physical manifestations of noise stress (7) include:

A common result of exposure to extreme noise is Tinnitus, also known as ringing in the ears. People with tinnitus may experience whistling, hissing, roaring, and buzzing noises. Unfortunately, tinnitus is not currently curable.

How to Reduce Noise Pollution in the Workplace?

HSE Australia can undertake professional workplace noise surveys to both map and understand areas of operation where noise is excessive and exceeds 85 decibels, the regulatory exposure standard set in the Work Health and Safety Regulations.
HSE Australia can produce contour maps that help to identify which workers are at risk of potential hearing loss within a work environment.
Our Occupational Hygiene Team also performs a range of other services and noise related assessment and tests.

These include:

Once businesses and employers understand the risks of noise and noise pollution within a work environment, they can take proactive steps to protect their employees, contractors, and visitors.

General tips to reduce noise-induced hearing loss of workers also include:

Soundproofing and adding insulation strategically (8) or changing the workspace set-up can also help to reduce the travel of noise and sounds from outside or other areas. Employers and employees alike should work actively to identify and eradicate noise sources that present a potential health risk.

Noise Mapping at Work

The Negative Health Impact of Noise At Work

Frequent exposure to noise at work can result in a range of health complications as detailed. These include both mental and physical complications. Risks include the inability to work effectively and lead a normal, happy life.
If you are interested in learning more about noise monitoring, mapping, and surveying, contact HSE Australia today. We work across various industries such as construction, manufacturing, mining, and defence to ensure compliance and protect the safety and well-being of employees.
We know that ensuring the health and safety are paramount for business success and employee satisfaction. Contact our team today to learn more about the work we do. We look forward to speaking with you.

Financial Impact on Businesses and Organisations

Reduced productivity of a worker experiencing gradual hearing loss is only measurable over a prolonged period and the financial impact on a business or organisation is, therefore, often too subtle to be noticed in day-to-day operations.

However, the risk of claims and the affiliated risk of workers being entitled to compensation represent a threat to the financial situation of a company.  The number of claims for compensation continue to increase.

Therefore, businesses and organisations must aim to reduce and control noise exposure of workers. They need to implement frequent noise assessments to understand which workers are exposed to excessive noise to reduce the risk of financial impacts on the company or organisation.

If you have any concerns regarding excessive noise at your workplace, please get in touch.

HSE Australia’s team of Occupational Hygienists Specialists is available 24/7 and Australia-wide.

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