The Hierarchy of Noise Control: Why It’s Important and How to Apply It in the Workplace

Ok, so you have a noise problem in the workplace…..how should you control it? It may be tempting to reach for the earplugs and determine the noise to be controlled but let’s not put up the “Safety is No.1” signs just yet.

Hearing protection such as earplugs or earmuffs do have their place but there are a number of reasons why you should investigate alternatives first. After all, Personal Protective Equipment (P.P.E) such as hearing protection have challenges.

These include:

-Hearing protection only works if people wear it. How likely is it that employees in your workplace will comply with hearing protection requirements?

-Hearing protection varies greatly in specification. The right ones need to be matched to the right applications to avoid under protection or over protection (the latter may reduce situational awareness).

-Hearing protection can be worn incorrectly. Earplugs require proper fitment techniques to ensure they fit snug inside the ear canal of the wearer. Otherwise adequate protection may not be achieved. Also, dirty earplugs can cause infections to develop within the ears.

-Fish don’t like them. While fish have ears, they tend to be more interested in eating ear plugs. Like cigarette butts, ear plugs tend to litter grounds and gutters. If you decide to go with ear plugs, they will often find their way into storm water systems.

With that in mind, let’s go through your range of options from most, to least preferred.

Elimination: This one can require some forward thinking and is best applied before introducing a noise source into the workplace. One of the most common examples are air compressors which vary greatly in noise generation. Make noise a consideration during the purchasing of new equipment to avoid trying to fix noise issues down the track.

Substitution: The biggest variation I get when doing workplace noise assessments is in powered hand tools so I think this would be the best example to use. An old dye grinder which lacks maintenance will be significantly louder than either a new grinder or one which has been properly maintained. They may both still be loud but the sound may dissipate to non-hazardous levels prior to reaching those around the user if the grinder is a newer model or in good condition. 

Engineering: The most relatable example of this would be the muffler of a vehicle. The name “muffler” says it all doesn’t it? There are entire books dedicated to the effective engineering of noise. Many workplaces may choose to isolate noise sources (i.e. plant rooms) or contain noisy activities within an environment which is walled off to reduce employee exposure. The most common examples are freeway noise barriers (and yes, there are entire books on those too).  

Administrative: Will people even bother to care about noise (or their ears for that matter) if they are unaware of the hazards? It comes down to a basic human trait….”What’s in it for me?” Education and training is needed for employees to understand WHY they should care about a quieter workplace, WHAT it means for their hearing and HOW to protect themselves and others from hazardous noise.

P.P.E: And of course, our old friend P.P.E is last on the podium for reasons already discussed. At the very least, try to use hearing protection as a supplement to other controls, rather than the all too common “go to” solution. For example, you may use an engineering control (quieter equipment) in conjunction with hearing protection. This will reduce the overall level of noise generated within the workplace while reducing employee exposures.

Need help with noise in your workplace?

Anitech Noise Solutions have fully trained noise assessors who are capable of conducting workplace noise assessments Australia-wide.

Following our analysis, we will provide you with a report and recommendations based on applicable legislative requirements and management strategies found within AS/NZS 1269 “Occupational Noise Management”.

Don’t forget….we also provide on-site hearing tests! This is to help your workplace monitor employee hearing performance and evaluate the effectiveness of current noise controls.

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