The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act (2005) obliges employers to “do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the safety, welfare and health of employees”. What does this mean when it comes to managing noise at work, asks Dermot Moloney
Civil

 

Author: Dermot Moloney MSc, BSc, MIOA, MIEnvSc, MInstSCE, CSci, director, Moloney & Associates

The EU has had a profound effect on Ireland’s legislative and administrative framework for occupational safety and health (OSH). In fact, the majority of our existing OSH legislation is derived from EU Directives. With its roots in Common Law, the legislation imposes a definitive Duty of Care. This provision is enshrined in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 which provides obligations and responsibilities for employers (and employees).

Based on the foundation that controls and obligations must be commensurate with the degree of risk, the Act obliges employers to “do everything reasonably practicable to ensure the safety, welfare and health of his employees”. What does this mean when it comes to managing noise at work?

While the 2005 Act can be regarded as ‘enabling legislation’, the principal legislation concerning the regulation and control of occupational noise exposure in Ireland is now provided for in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007 (S.I. No. 299 of 2007). Chapter 1 of Part 5 of these regulations transposes the primary requirements of Directive 2003/10/EC (which is informally referred to as the ‘Physical Agents (Noise) Directive’) into Irish law.

The 2007 regulations require employers (as far as is reasonably practicable) to eliminate risks arising from noise exposure at source or to reduce the risks to a minimum. There are specified ‘trigger’ or action values in the regulations, i.e. values at which the employer (and employee) become subject to certain obligations. While the limit values may be regarded as minimum standards, the universal risk assessment paradigm requires us to examine and evaluate the workplace and the appropriateness of the controls case-by-case.

In practice, the evolving nature of risk assessment and the progress of scientific method and technological advancement allow us to evaluate physical agents (including noise) and judge whether the controls are commensurate with the degree of risk.

In every workplace, there is an unambiguous obligation on the employer to identify hazards, to assess risks and to thoroughly record and document the findings. The employer must also communicate the findings with employees and their representatives. These obligations and the emphasis of recording and communicating the details to stakeholders are the cornerstones of an effective control system. Within the system, there are checks and balances along with statutorily-defined duties and entitlements.

Options to benchmark and constantly test the controls also arise, by scrutinising data and asking questions such as:

  • Have all hazards been identified or have we overlooked anything significant?
  • Have we eliminated hazards where practicable?
  • Are the controls categorically appropriate for the risk – is there evidence suggesting that some are suspect?
  • Is there reasonable justification to revisit any of the assumptions/data used in the risk assessment?
  • Do health surveillance data re-affirm the risk assessment findings or is there a discord?
  • Does our factory/workplace compare with the risk profiles of similarly exposed groups/other organisations?
  • Are there factors which indicate that a review of our risk assessment is overdue?

Legislation and managing risk


While legislation is the primary reference point to which employers and OSH practitioners return, there are many factors which influence how risk is managed. For example, the application of OSH management in many industries can be significantly influenced by policies and pronouncements made by international, consultative and corporate bodies/agencies as well as by enforcement agencies and ‘learned societies’.

According to the International Labour Office (ILO), ‘the management systems’ approach to OSH brings a number of important advantages at both corporate and international level. A systems approach helps to ensure that decisions on hazard control progressively improve. Other key advantages advocated by the ILO, are ‘streamlining and improving communication mechanisms, policies, procedures, programmes, and objectives … and ‘establishing a continuous improvement framework’.

Ireland has formally recognised ILO’s management systems guidelines ‘as a model for national promotion’ and many employers utilise their systems to manage physical agents. According to the ILO: “In pursuit of a safe and healthy working environment for all workers, each country has to develop an effective national OSH system as a collaborative effort of the government and social partners. Such a system should consist of various elements including legislation and compliance assurance mechanisms as well as training and information networks (ILO, 2011).”

New Picture

Figure 1: Hierarchical control system for construction noise

Unfortunately, when it comes to training, many employers fail to comply with the basic requirements. In addition, many people who are responsible for managing noise in the workplace have little appreciation for the technical issues involved. Directive 89/391/EEC (the Framework Directive) provides a well-defined hierarchy for implementing preventative measures, with risk avoidance assuming top priority. An example of a hierarchical control system for construction noise is presented shown in Figure 1 (above), based upon many published systems, as adapted by the author. Training is recognised as a key requirement. However, this is often neglected.

Regardless of the workplace, training may need to be addressed in terms of the expertise of the assessor and in terms of the training needs of employees. With reference to employees, it is essential that occupational noise training should always address the following issues:

  • The nature of the risks resulting from exposure to noise;
  • The organisational and technical measures taken to eliminate noise at source and/or reduce it to a minimum;
  • The relevant exposure limit values and exposure action values;
  • The results of the assessment and measurements of noise and an explanation of their significance and the potential risks;
  • The correct use of hearing protectors;
  • Why and how to detect and report signs of hearing damage;
  • The circumstances in which health surveillance is made available (audiometric testing); and
  • Safe working practices to minimise exposure to noise.

It is noteworthy that the forgoing details have not been extracted from an idealised training manual or from a research paper. They have been extracted (almost verbatim) from Regulation 130 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007. They constitute the absolute minimum content for the training which must be provided to any employee whose daily noise exposure level equals or exceeds 80 dBA.

Risk assessments for noise


Often employers, safety officers and consultants can have difficulties in addressing risk assessments for noise and/or communicating the findings of an assessment. The obligations of an acoustic or OSH consultant need to be addressed under the concept of ‘a competent person’, as prescribed by the 2005 Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act. In essence, the competent person is defined in terms of the suitability of their training, experience and knowledge, so as to provide informed and appropriate advice. The complexity of the environment or workplace and/or the selection of appropriate noise controls may in some instances have a major bearing on the question of competency.

All employers have a duty under health and safety law to reduce the risk of hearing damage to their employees by controlling exposure to noise. In many instances, it may be essential that a competent risk assessment is undertaken. In practice, much of the noise assessment and survey work which is routinely undertaken falls far short of the required standard. In fact, many ‘assessments’ are clearly inadequate and have been undertaken using suspect equipment and/or methodology. In addition, often the person who undertakes the assessment may have little or no pertinent training or expertise.

The primary purpose of a noise risk assessment is to quantify the exposure levels and clarify what needs to be done to protect the health and safety of employees who are exposed to noise. Noise measurements may not always be required, however, whenever any significant risk exists, it would be difficult to justify not using site-specific measurement data. This does not mean that every assessment will necessarily require a huge volume of measurement data. Generally, a combination of reliable measurement and good interpretation provides the real benefit.

New Picture

Figure 2: Hearing Conservation Programme

The findings of the risk assessment must be adequately reported and an action plan should be developed to identify and document the steps taken to meet the requirements of the law – e.g. what has been already done, what needs to be done, an indicative timetable and clear identification of the individual/s responsible for the work. In some companies, these requirements are sometimes addressed in a Hearing Conservation Programme (as shown in Figure 2, above).

Given that the assessor’s findings will be the foundation on which the employer’s controls are built, it is essential that they are reliable. Furthermore, the employer is obligated to take reasonable steps to ensure that the assessment meets all necessary legal requirements, even if the assessment is carried out by someone outside the company (such as a consultant).

Unfortunately, many companies learn that their risk assessments are inadequate or their consultants were not competent when it is too late, for example, when dealing with a claim for occupational hearing loss. A useful test for a company to apply would be to question whether their assessments or assessor would stand up to scrutiny by an expert in the field (or to a cross examination in a court of law). In order to avoid long term problems and pitfalls, it is imperative that noise monitoring and risk assessment is undertaken by competent persons and companies should closely examine an assessor’s credentials prior to commissioning their services.

Training for environmental noise assessment


When it comes to environmental noise, the definition of competency is seldom addressed in statute law. Nonetheless, it is imperative that noise assessors and individuals with responsibility for environmental noise management are appropriately trained. Increasingly the competency requirements are addressed in codes of practice or in guidance documents and in some jurisdictions the enforcement authority will be particularly discerning. In Ireland, the EPA has documented the prescribed competency requirements for noise assessors and many local authorities will insist that noise assessments are only performed by ‘suitably qualified individuals’.

Interestingly the European Commission is somewhat less prescriptive when it comes to regulating environmental noise. This allows Member States to prescribe widely different limits and in a 2010 report the European Environment Agency (EEA) noted extensively varying limits which varied both for different sources of noise and from state to state. The variation in EU limit values is indicative of the variable tolerances we have for noise from different sources, but clearly it is also influenced by variable socio-political and economic factors.

The European Commission despite the EEA’s findings is by no means inactive in matters of environmental noise and it is addressing the long-term consequences of excessive exposure. In its 2011 report, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that: ‘there is sufficient evidence from large-scale epidemiological studies linking the population’s exposure to environmental noise with adverse health effects. Therefore, environmental noise should be considered not only as a cause of nuisance but also a concern for public health and environmental health.’

New Picture

Figure 3: Noise Management Programme

At some facilities a combination of factors (e.g. inherently quiet plant and/or effective containment of noisy sources) ensures that environmental noise is a relatively minor issue and significant noise impacts are unlikely to arise. However, many plants will require an ongoing programme of work to ensure an effective level of control over the facility’s noise emissions. To this end it is appropriate that a Noise Management Programme be adopted for certain facilities based on a risk assessment approach. Local factors (such as the proximity of receptors) will help to determine the nature and extent of the Noise Management Programme. However, the degree of attention and priority that the programme will require will also be determined on a site-specific, risk assessment based approach.

There are obvious similarities in the management approaches which are adopted for workplace and environmental noise and comprehensive assessments form the keystone of good practice. Effective noise assessment requires an understanding of acoustics, codes of practice, pertinent standards as well as practical skills. The Institute of Acoustics (IOA) have specifically developed certificate of competence courses to provide participants with the necessary training to ensure that they can competently perform their duties. Given the evolving nature of acoustics and its legislative framework, refresher courses are also seen as an important element of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and help to ensure that practitioners are kept up to date.

Dermot Moloney MSc, BSc, MIOA, MIEnvSc, MInstSCE, CSci (senior acoustical consultant) is a chartered scientist and director of Moloney & Associates, an independent acoustic and environmental consultancy. The consultancy is an Institute of Acoustics (IOA)-accredited training centre and an Engineers Ireland Registered Training Provider. Moloney holds a number of post-graduate qualifications in acoustics including an MSc in Applied Acoustics (with distinction). In the field of noise and vibration, Moloney has acted as an expert witness for a wide range of industries, local authorities, insurance companies and state agencies. Since 1994, he has undertaken acoustical assessments for Planning Control, Environmental Impact Assessment and for litigation purposes. He has presented expert acoustical evidence at planning enquiries, waste licensing oral hearings and court Hearings. Since 2005, Moloney has been a visiting lecturer at UCD where he lectures in noise and vibration on Dip, BSc and MSc programmes. He also has provided guest lectures and workshops on post-graduate courses in Sligo IT and at UCC. For details of IOA workplace and environmental noise-assessment training options, see www.env.ie.

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  Author: Dermot Moloney MSc, BSc, MIOA, MIEnvSc, MInstSCE, CSci, director, Moloney & Associates The EU has had a profound effect on Ireland’s legislative and administrative framework for occupational safety and health (OSH). In fact, the majority of our existing OSH legislation is derived from EU Directives. With its roots in...