New noise regulations to impact on the waste management sector


A new regulation entitled "Safety, Health & Welfare at Work (Control of Noise at Work)(Protection of Workers) Regulations to be introduced by February 15th 2006, will have a significant impact on the waste management sector in Ireland.

In particular, materials processors will have to take cognisance of the contents thereof. By February 15th, EU Directive 2003/10/EC - Physical Agents (Noise) Directive on the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to risks arising from physical agents (noise) - will be transposed in all EU Member States.

The aim of these regulations is to reduce the amount of noise-induced hearing loss or the potential thereof in all employment sectors, not alone waste management. Noise-induced hearing loss is irreparable (but preventable) - it won't deteriorate any further but neither will it improve with time. Once the cilia hairs in the cochlea become damaged, they can never be repaired.

The changes in the noise levels brought about by the new Noise at Work Regulations could mean significant changes in workplaces for some employers. In Denmark and Holland (with populations similar to Ireland's), early enforcement of the regulations meant that 20,000 additional wearers of hearing protection were identified in the workplace.

Noise induced hearing loss is one of the most common occupational health problems in Europe. 29% of Europe's workers are exposed to high noise levels for more than a quarter of their working time. Around 7% of European workers consider that their work affects their health in the form of hearing disorders. Individuals with noise-induced hearing loss may not be aware of the condition until it is of handicapping proportion - and, by that time, permanent.

While the human benefits of protecting hearing are immeasurable, there may also be financial benefits to employers who manage noise risk - in respect of their insurance premiums. Statistics in the UK show that over a third of occupational disease claims in 2004 were related to the loss of hearing.

What is noise?
There are many definitions of noise, but it is best described as "unwanted sound". We do, of course, require a particular amount of sound in our everyday lives to communicate and to live safely.

Noise is most commonly measured using the decibel A scale - dB (A). It is logarithmic in scale - sound intensity doubles with each 3dB(A) rise and halves with each 3dB(A) reduction.

The regulations on noise require action by employers to protect people at work. The employer must measure sound to determine the level of noise and the exposure levels of workers affected. They must also try to reduce the level of noise exposure to the lowest level reasonably practicable. The regulations impose specific duties on employers where the exposure level of employees exceeds 80 dB (A). Further duties are imposed at an exposure level of 85 dB (A).

At an exposure limit of 80 dB (A) the employer must -

  • Provide information about the level of exposure and associated risks.
  • Provide hearing protection and training on how to use it.
  • Make audiometric testing available.

At an exposure level of 85 dB (A) the employer must also -

  • Identify the cause of the noise.
  • Put in place a programme of reduction measures.
  • Put up signs that the levels exceed 85 dB (A) and that hearing protectors must be worn.
  • Provide training for workers concerned regarding the risks to their hearing, the measures taken to reduce the noise and the necessity for wearing hearing protectors.
As the new regulations require employers to organise regular audiometric testing for employees working at - or near - the first or second action levels, it is vital to ensure that pre-employment /pre-exposure checks are undertaken and should be repeated every 12 months, unless there are changes in the working conditions that might warrant immediate retesting. In addition, employers will need to be aware of any external factors which might impact on employees hearing - e.g. are they a clay pigeon shooter or a DJ at the weekends.

When should a workplace noise assessment be carried out?
If it is difficult to communicate with a work colleague who is standing 2 metres away, then an occupational noise assessment is most likely necessary. All such assessments should be undertaken by a competent person - using, either an integrating sound level meter, or a dosimeter (Type I/II accuracy).

In undertaking a noise assessment using a dosimeter, the employee wears a microphone attachéd to their collar (as close to the ear as possible). Employers need to ensure that the microphone is not abused during sampling periods by any potential "Pavarotti" or "Carmen" fans. Both meters measure air pressure changes and convert it to the decibel A scale to make the results more meaningful - dB (A) scale takes the sensitivity and susceptibility of the human ear into consideration.

So how does an employer remedy the situation if recorded noise levels need to be rectified? The hierarchy of control is -

  • Elimination
  • Substitution - use a quieter compressor to replace the noisy one or perhaps the use of electric tools instead of pneumatic tools
  • Engineering Controls - anti-vibration mountings, sound absorbent materials, silencers, etc.
  • Administrative Controls - limit exposure time (job rotation); "buy quiet" policy - make a conscious decision not to buy equipment emitting > 80dB(A)
  • PPE - earmuffs / plugs - remember PPE only protects the person wearing it - it must be worn correctly and at all times.
  • Training - provide employees with the information and training needed to help them understand and deal with noise related tasks - how to recognise hazards and minimise them; certification.

With Ireland's track record on compensation awards for hearing loss in the workplace, it is imperative that we prepare to meet the new regulations in a comprehensive manner.

In concluding, these regulations will have far reaching effects in the near future for all industrial sectors - not just waste management. One might ask which is the best hearing protection? The best product is the one that gets worn correctly at all times!!!!



Enda Kiernan, MSc., BSc., C. Env., MCIWM, MAPM, ICIOB is a Chartered Waste Manager presently working as A / Senior Executive Engineer with Cork County Council



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