Site Information and assistance

On this page:

Work-related noise-induced hearing loss is a preventable but irreversible condition that affects many Australian workers.

  • Between 28–32% of the Australian workforce is likely to work in an environment where they are exposed to loud noise at work.
  • Noise-related injuries are most common in the manufacturing and construction industries with technicians and trades workers, machinery operators, drivers and labourers most exposed.

Too much noise at work can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss or tinnitus—ringing in the ears. Hearing damage can occur from extended exposure to noise or exposure to very loud impact or explosive sounds.

  • Long term exposure to loud noise is the most common preventable cause of hearing loss.

Too much noise: a definition

In the model WHS Regulations the exposure standard for noise involves two measures:

  • LAeq,8h of 85 dB(A)
  • LC,peak of 140 dB(C). 

LAeq,8h of 85 dB(A) means that over an eight-hour shift a worker can’t be exposed to more than 85 decibels. Whether this is exceeded depends on the level of noise involved and how long a worker is exposed to it.

LCpeak of 140 dB(C) means a worker can’t be exposed to a noise level above 140 decibels. Peak noise levels greater than this usually occur with impact or explosive noise such as sledge-hammering or a gun shot. Any exposure above this peak can create almost instant damage to hearing.

  • These limits should protect most but not all people. The risks from workplace noise must be eliminated or minimised so far as is reasonably practicable.

Ideally, you should keep noise levels below:

  • 50 decibels if your work requires high concentration or effortless conversation
  • 70 decibels if your work is routine, fast-paced and demands attentiveness or if it is important to carry on conversations.

The model Code of Practice: Managing Noise and Preventing Hearing Loss at Work contains a Noise Ready Reckoner (Appendix C). You can use this to calculate a worker’s total noise exposure when they have been exposed to a range of noise levels through the day.

Hearing loss: a snapshot

  • From 2001–02 to 2014–15 there were 65,300 accepted claims for deafness in Australia. This was an average of 4,700 per year.
  • Over one-third (35%) of these claims were made by employees in the manufacturing industry while 18% came from construction.  
  • The primary mechanism that led to deafness was long-term exposure to sounds arising from working inside.
  • In 2007–08 $41 million in workers’ compensation payments were made with an estimated total economic cost of around $240 million.

How the damage occurs

Sound stimulates tiny hair-like cells in your inner-ear, which send messages to your brain. Noise-induced hearing loss occurs because excessive noise damages those delicate hair cells. Noise-induced hearing loss can’t be cured and it worsens as noise exposure continues.

Exposure to some chemicals can also result in hearing loss. These chemicals are known as ototoxic substances. Hearing loss is more likely to occur if a worker is exposed to both noise and ototoxic substances than to just one alone.

Work health and safety duties 

Under the model WHS Regulations a business must:

  • Make sure the noise a worker is exposed to at the workplace doesn’t exceed the exposure standard for noise.
  • Provide audiometric testing to a worker who is frequently required to use personal hearing protectors to protect them from hearing loss associated with noise that exceeds the exposure standard.

Designers and manufacturers of plant must make sure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that plant emits as little noise as possible. They need to provide information about:

  • noise emission values
  • operating conditions used to measure noise emissions
  • how noise emissions were measured.

Importers and suppliers must get this information and pass it on to customers.

Identifying hazards

The potential for noise to be hazardous is not always obvious. The effects of long-term exposure are cumulative and a worker may carry out a number of noisy work activities that over time expose them to hazardous noise.

As a PCBU you must identify hazardous noises in consultation with your workers and their health and safety representatives.

  • A quick test you can do to assess the noise in your workplace is the ‘one metre rule’. If you need to raise your voice to talk to someone about one metre away you can assume the sound level is likely to be hazardous to hearing. You could also inspect the workplace by regularly walking around, talking to workers and observing how things are done. Find out where noise is coming from and which tasks or processes produce it. Take immediate action to control noise where possible, for example fix loose panels that are vibrating and rattling during machine operation.

You should also review available information regarding noise levels from manufacturers or suppliers of plant and equipment used at the workplace.

  • Information and advice about hazards and risks relevant to particular industries and work activities is available from regulators, industry associations, unions, technical specialists and health and safety consultants.

Also check whether any workers’ compensation claims have been made for hearing loss and if any hearing loss or tinnitus has been found during repeat audiometric testing. If a worker’s hearing has been affected and this has been attributed to a particular task, then a hazard may exist that could affect other workers.

Table 1: Common noise sources and their typical sound levels

Typical sound level in dB

Sound source

140

Jet engine at 30 m

130

Rivet hammer (pain can be felt at this threshold)

120

Rock drill

110

Chainsaw

100

Sheet metal workshop

90

Lawn mower

85

Front-end loader

80

Kerbside heavy traffic

Lathe

70

Loud conversation

60

Normal conversation

40

Quiet radio music

30

Whispering

0

Hearing threshold

Managing risks

If you have identified any noisy activities that may expose workers or others to hazardous noise, unless you can reduce the exposures to below the standard straight away, you should assess the risks by carrying out a noise assessment.

A noise assessment will help you:

  • identify which workers are at risk of hearing loss
  • determine what noise sources and processes are causing that risk
  • identify if and what kind of noise control measures could be implemented
  • check the effectiveness of existing control measures.

A noise assessment may not always need measurement. For example, if only one activity at the workplace—using a single machine—involves noise above 85 decibels and the manufacturer has provided information about the machine’s noise levels when it is operated in particular ways, then a sufficient assessment can be made without measurement.

More complex situations may need measurement to determine a worker’s exposure to noise, such as workplaces with variable noise levels over a shift and jobs where workers move in and out of noisy areas. In these cases a noise assessment should be done by a competent person in accordance with the procedures in AS/NZS 1269.1.

For more information on the risk management process see the model Code of Practice: How to manage work health and safety risks and Identify, assess and control hazards.

Steps to control noise in a workplace

The model WHS Regulations require duty holders to work through a hierarchy of control to choose the measure that eliminates or most effectively minimises the risk in the circumstances.

  • The most effective control measure is to eliminate the source of noise completely. Can you plug electrical equipment into mains supply instead of using a noisy generator? Can you replace hand-held power tools with an automated process that doesn’t produce noise?
  • If you can't eliminate the noise look at reducing it. Can you substitute noisy pieces of plant with less noisy ones? Can you move the equipment further away with the use of extension cords, additional welding leads, or longer air hoses?

Remember that actions to eliminate or minimise noise may introduce new hazards, and risks associated with those hazards need to be managed effectively.

Other ways to minimise noise include:

  • Engineering controls. These are a common control measure. You might modify equipment to reduce noise at the source, or place barriers of plywood around the source. You might also place barriers along the transmission path to reduce noise levels, or place them around the worker to prevent noise exposure.
  • Administrative controls. These include operating noisy machines during shifts where fewer people are exposed, limiting the amount of time a person spends near a noise source, moving workers away from the noise source to reduce their exposure, or providing quiet areas where workers can gain relief from hazardous noise sources.
  • PPE. Personal hearing protectors such as ear-muffs or ear-plugs should be used:
    • when the risks arising from exposure to noise can’t be eliminated or minimised by other more effective control measures
    • as an interim measure until other control measures are implemented
    • where extra protection is needed above what has been achieved using other noise control measures.

The risk of occupational noise-induced hearing loss is increased by relying too much on, and improperly using, personal hearing protectors such as ear muffs and plugs.

Easy ways to keep noise levels low

  • Buy the quietest plant and machinery for the job and always ask the manufacturer/supplier for information about noise levels.
  • Change the way you do the job, for example glue don’t hammer, weld don’t rivet, lower don’t drop.
  • Reduce noise levels at the source, for example fit silencers to exhausts, turn down the volume, change fan speeds.
  • Isolate the source of the noise, for example use barriers, remote controls or sound-proof covers.
  • Reduce exposure levels, for example restrict access to noisy areas, provide quiet areas for rest breaks, or limit time spent in noisy areas by rotating tasks.
  • Proper maintenance of equipment and tools can result in lower noise levels.

Audiometric testing

Under the model WHS Regulations, a PCBU must provide audiometric testing for a worker who is carrying out work if they are required to frequently use personal hearing protectors as a control measure for noise that exceeds the exposure standard.

  • Audiometric testing must be provided within three months of a worker starting work that exposes them to a risk of work related noise-induced hearing loss.

Starting the audiometric testing before people are exposed to hazardous noise (such as new starters or those changing jobs) provides a baseline as a reference for future audiometric test results.

Regular follow-up tests must be carried out at least every two years. These should be carried out well into the work shift so that any temporary hearing loss can be identified.

Our national approach

The Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022 identifies a number of priority work-related disorders including noise-induced hearing loss. This disorder is a focus because of the:

  • severity of consequences to workers
  • the number of workers estimated to be effected
  • the existence of known prevention options.

The Strategy aims to reduce serious injury resulting in one or more weeks off work by at least 30% nationwide by 2022. Safe Work Australia and all jurisdictions have been working collaboratively with the industry, unions, relevant organisations and the community to reduce work related noise-induced hearing loss, and incidents and injuries resulting from it.

Further advice

Safe Work Australia is not a regulator and cannot advise you about noise compliance in the workplace. If you need help, please contact your state or territory work health and safety authority.

This site is undergoing constant refinement. If you have noticed something that needs attention or have ideas for the site please let us know.

Last modified on Wednesday 29 March 2017 [1606|34786]