Hearing loss through noise injury is painless, permanent, and progressive, but most importantly, it is preventable.
Join Kate Cole and Kristy Thornton from the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH) for some practical tips to help with the safety of your small business. They use examples from readily available guidance to help you identify the hazards, eliminate these where possible, or control the hazards to help manage the risk.
They will also explain when you can do this yourself, and when you might need to bring in the experts.
Who is this presentation for?
This presentation is aimed at small business owners; however anyone with an interest in how to manage occupational noise will find this useful.
About the presenter
Kristy Thornton is an occupational hygienist and Kate Cole is an environmental engineer and a Certified Occupational Hygienist. Both Kate and Kristy work on a variety of projects in mining, general construction, contaminated land remediation, and tunnelling. They work for Thiess Services and are active members of the AIOH.
The AIOH is the professional body for occupational hygienists. Occupational hygiene is the art and science dedicated to the anticipation, recognition, evaluation, communication and control of environmental stressors in, or arising from, the workplace that may result in injury, illness impairment or affect the wellbeing of workers or others. These stressors are normally divided into the categories:
- ergonomic, and
Practical Challenges of Workplace Health and Safety for Small Business – with a focus on occupational noise
Kate Cole and Kristy Thornton
Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists
Hello and welcome to our webinar on practical challenges of workplace health and safety for small business. Kristy and I are occupational hygienists and we work to prevent illness and disease in the workplace. This ranges from protecting workers from hazardous substances and chemical exposure to protecting workers from the effects of thermal heat stress or from hazardous agents to name a few. And although we work for a very large organisation, some of the tools and methods that we use to assess and control occupational exposure to various hazardous agents are directly transferrable into the small business sector.
There are many challenges that face small business on a day-to-day basis and we can appreciate that you probably have both limited time and a limited access to resources to help you comply with your numerous responsibilities around protecting the health of your workers. So we developed this webinar because we wanted to create a short, simple and useful practical guide that you can use to address one of the most common health-related issues that face small businesses in Australia, that being exposure to occupational noise and its resulting effect - noise-induced hearing loss.
Now noise-induced hearing loss can occur from being exposed to relatively loud noises over a long period of time or from a sudden, short burst of a really high noise level. This could be for example, a high pressure washer where the noise level is consistently quite high or it could be a sudden burst of noise such as a sheet pile being installed. Either scenario can result in noise-induced hearing loss.
Hearing loss through noise injury is a major problem in one particular small business sector, the farming community. Noise-induced hearing loss affects up to two thirds of farmers to some degree and the resulting effects include difficulty hearing the telephone or the TV, being able to hear regular conversations at work or wherever there is background noise, and one of the most common things that occurs is that people lose the ability to hear their children or their grandchildren speak as those sounds are in the frequency range that are lost first.
Other things that happen is what's known as Tinnitus, or ringing noise in the ear which is a common sign of exposure to excessive noise. Hearing loss through noise injury is painless, it's permanent, it's progressive, but most importantly, it is preventable.
But firstly, why is occupational health and hygiene important to small business and to the way that small businesses operate, particularly with regards to noise? Well firstly, implementing the principles of occupational hygiene prevents injury, illness and disease. Between 2002 and 2007 there were about 16,500 successful workers' compensation claims for industrial deafness involving permanent impairment due to noise. Exposure to excessive noise is also associated with many other health affects such as annoyance fatigue and to serious health conditions such as hypertension, and ultimately you want happy and healthy workers.
An Occupational Hygienist is important to small business because you want to make sure that you're complying with your legislative obligations. So what do you have to do as a small business owner under the current legislation in Australia? Well, your first point of call is the Work Health and Safety Act and the associated Work Health and Safety Regulations. Which one that is will depend on what state you're in of course, so you need to refer to your own jurisdiction for specific details, but in a general sense, you need to know that you need to maintain a work environment that does not present a risk to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable, and managing these risks is simply a process. Wherever possible, you want to eliminate them and if you can't do that, then you need to minimise them, and when it comes to occupational noise the legislative requirements are fairly consistent across all states. They all require that Page 2 of 4
you ensure that the noise a worker is exposed to does not exceed the exposure standard and that you provide audiometric testing to workers who are frequently required to use hearing protection.
The exposure standard for noise is defined in the regulations and there are two. There is an LAeq 8 hours of 85 dB(A) and an Lc,peak of 140 dB(C). There are two parts to the exposure standard because noise can either cause gradual hearing loss over a period of time or it can be so loud that it causes immediate hearing loss like we mentioned before. So why are these numbers important? Well, besides complying with the legislative requirements in your state, exposing your workers to hazardous levels of noise causes an unacceptable risk of developing noise-induced hearing loss. Sound stimulates tiny hair-like cells in your inner-ear which sends messages to your brain and noise-induced hearing loss occurs because excessive noise damages those delicate hair cells. Noise-induced hearing loss cannot be cured and it worsens as noise exposure continues.
Okay, so what can you do and how do you ensure that your workers are not exposed above the exposure standard? Well, you first start off this process like any risk assessment. You need to identify the hazard, assess the risk, control the exposure and review how effective your control measures are. In terms of tools to help you with this, we'll start with the ones that are free, and there is a lot of great guidance material out there to help you with this. A good starting point after you've digested the Work Health and Safety Regulations would be the Code of Practice for Managing Noise and Preventing Hearing Loss at Work. Don't be scared of the 43 pages. This Code of Practice really breaks it down for you and helps guide you through the process. From hazard identification to risk assessment, to some simple example of control measures, it's all contained in that document.
Now I'm not going to spend a lot of time going page-to-page through the Code of Practice. You can do that in your own time, but I do want to give you an Occupational Hygienist's view of some simple, practical items that you can do to start to address these issues. Now as occupational hygienists, we love to measure things, including noise and you might expect me to tell you to call an Occupational Hygienist to come in and get us to measure the noise in your workplace, but to be honest, we would rather see you do what you can to control the noise first.
The very first step of the risk assessment involves hazard identification. You don't necessarily need an Occupational Hygienists to come out and measure the noise source to tell you that it's noisy. The Code of Practice even has a checklist to get you started. One of the things that we recommend is that you start with applying the one metre rule. Stand about an arm's length away from your co-worker. If you have to raise your voice to be heard one metre away, you can assume that the sound level is at or above the 85 dB(A) exposure standard. These days with the use of smartphones, there are a lot of apps that can be downloaded to use that state that they measure the levels of noise. Keep in mind though that most of these are inaccurate by comparison to a calibrated sound level metre and if they are used, it should only be done as part of an initial screening phase and they do not replace the need to do an occupational noise assessment.
The Code of Practice provides a useful noise hazard identification checklist that we mentioned earlier, that you can use as part of this to determine if indeed you need to perform an occupational noise assessment by bringing in the hygienists. If that's done, the person doing the assessment needs to be competent and they need to perform the assessment in accordance with the Australian standard. Before that however, you need to begin to look at reducing the noise as much as you can as a first step.
Let's assume that you have some locations in your workplace where noise is above the exposure standard. You've done the one metre rule test and now you want to fix it. There are several ways to control and reduce exposure to noise in a workplace. The first is fairly obvious. Ask yourself if you can eliminate it. This might be simple. Can you plug in equipment instead of using that noisy generator? Or it might be more complex – can you replace hand-held power tools with an automated process? It's all about what's practicable and elimination might not meet that definition.
If you can't eliminate it, then the next step is to look at substitution. Can you substitute noisy pieces of plant with smaller, less noisy items? Again, is this practicable? You need to keep in mind that you don't want to create another hazard either. Page 3 of 4
Now the most common control measure that we see lie around the next step, which is engineering controls. This is where you modify equipment or place barriers around the noise source. You might also place barriers along the transmission path to reduce the noise levels at the worker's ear. Or you might place barriers around the worker to prevent noise exposure, such as this example of an acoustic control room and noise refuge inside a paper manufacturing facility.
The next item on the control hierarchy is to look at administrative controls. These include things such as operating noisy machines during shifts where fewer people are exposed, or limiting the amount of time a person spends at a noise source, providing quiet areas where workers can gain relief from hazardous noise sources, or moving workers away from the noise source. Controlling noise exposure through distance is often an effective yet simple and inexpensive administrative control. Increasing the distance between the noise source and the worker reduces their exposure.
And the very last step in controlling exposure to noise is through the use of PPE and in this case, hearing protection. Now items such as ear muffs and ear plugs are considered an acceptable but less desirable option to control exposure to noise and are generally used during the time necessary to implement engineering or administrative controls as a short-term measure. We need to caution you on relying too heavily on the use of hearing protection however if you use it, then under the Australian standard you need to develop and implement an effective hearing conservation program.
The key elements of an effective hearing conservation program include an occupational noise assessment which involves personal monitoring to identify which workers are at risk from hazardous levels of noise, informing workers at risk from hazardous levels of noise, exposure of the results of the noise monitoring, maintaining a worker audiometric testing program which is a professional evaluation of the health effects of noise upon an individual worker's hearing, proper selection of hearing protection based upon individual fit and manufacturer's quality testing, indicating the likely protection that they will provide to a properly trained worker, evaluation of the hearing protector's attenuation and effectiveness for the specific workplace noise, and lastly, training and information that ensures the workers are aware of the hazard from excessive noise exposure and how to properly use the protective equipment that they have been provided.
So it's really not as simple as putting out a box of earplugs in your work area. Using hearing protection requires a lot of administrative effort to constantly ensure good compliance with their use and also the numerous requirements surrounding their use.
In summary, when jobs produce high noise levels there are ways to reduce your exposure other than or in addition to the use of hearing protection. The best way to reduce exposure to hazardous noise on a work site is by planning for potential exposure before activities start. So plan ahead. Then look to see if you can get rid of the noise source entirely or see if you can reduce it. Reduce the noise by using the quietest equipment available, for example, choose a smaller, quieter generator. Can you move the equipment further away with the use of extension cords, additional welding leads, or air hoses? Noise levels go down as we increase our distance from a noisy object. Can you block it? That might be through building temporary barriers of plywood or other on-site materials to keep the noise from reaching workers. Can you maintain it? Proper maintenance of equipment and tools can result in lower noise levels. Can you limit it? Limit the time your workers are exposed in one day. Rotate tasks or reduce the overall time workers are in a high-noise area and your last resort is to use hearing protection.
If you do this though, then keep in mind that you need to implement a noise conservation program which includes occupational noise assessment, worker training, audiometric testing, proper selection of hearing protection based upon individual fit, evaluation of the hearing protector's attenuation and effectiveness for the specific noise and also be sure to use Australian Standards' approved hearing protection. There are a lot of imported products on the market which are not approved, so you do need to check.
We hope that you found this webinar useful to help you manage exposure to noise in your workplace. If you need assistance in identifying specific control measures or are in need of an occupational noise assessment, you can consult the AIOH website where you'll find a consultant directory of occupational hygienists willing to help you. As a bonus, if you are a small business in New South Wales, WorkCover offers a rebate of up to $500 under their small business rebate program which was put in place to help Page 4 of 4
small businesses fix safety problems across five common risk areas, and noise is one of them. I encourage you to visit the WorkCover webpage for further information and to look for similar programs in your home state.
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