Occupational noise

Hand holding a recording microphone

Noise-induced hearing loss is the most common preventable occupational health condition in the world.

Main sources of noise at work

Typical noise levels

Hazardous noise levels

Occupational noise burden

Health effects of noise

Noise is defined as ‘unwanted sounds’, while sound is a term used for sensation that the brain receives when pressure variations in the air are detected by the ear. What is sound to one person can very well be noise to somebody else, but anyone who is exposed to noise is potentially at risk. The higher the level of noise, and the longer individuals are exposed to it, the more risk they have of suffering harm from it.

Millions of workers worldwide are exposed to noise levels that put their hearing at risk. Excessive noise is an occupational hazard with many adverse effects, not only to the workers involved with noisy operations but also to those around them. Its effects can lead to temporary or permanent hearing damage and can impair workers’ efficiency. Individuals suffering from poor hearing, whether it is due to their age or illness, can have their problems made worse by exposure to higher levels of noise at work. It can also lead to accidents due to limited speech communication, misunderstanding oral instructions and masking the sounds of approaching danger or warnings.

Main sources of noise at work

Noise is a common hazard and is present to some extent in almost all workplaces. It is the most common health hazard in industries such as entertainment, manufacturing, agriculture, ship-building, textiles, mining and quarrying, food and drink, woodworking, metal working and construction.

Some common sources of noise are:

  • loud music
  • the use of heavy machinery
  • workplace transport
  • electrical tools such as circular saws and cutter heads
  • production lines
  • pneumatic tools such as drills, grinders and riveting guns
  • electrical motors and generators
  • engineering processes such as metal fabrication
  • plant rooms where ventilation equipment has to run continuously.

Typical noise levels

Noise is measured in decibels (dB). There are two aspects to sound measurements:

  • the frequency of the sound
  • the intensity of the sound.

The decibel scale is logarithmic: a small increase in the decibel level is, in reality, a big increase in the noise level. For example, an increase of only 3dB doubles the noise level at the human ear and halves the time a person should be exposed to it once harmful levels are reached.

GreenFacts provides more information on aspects of sound and how it’s measured.

Graphic showing typical noise levels in a chart

Hazardous noise levels

It is difficult to specify what level of noise is absolutely safe, as individuals are affected by noise differently. However, noise levels above 75–80 dB(A) are known to cause hearing damage. The louder the noise is, the less time it takes to cause damage. For example, noise levels at 85 dB(A) may take as long as eight hours to cause hearing damage, while noise at 100 dB(A) may start damaging hair cells in the ear after only 30 minutes.

Equivalent noise level exposures table

To establish whether a hazardous level of noise exists within the workplace, employers need to check whether a normal conversation at a distance of about one metre can be carried out. If there is difficulty in communicating then it is likely that noise levels are high.

The following table shows the World Health Organization’s recommended noise levels in various occupations:

World Health Organization's recommended noise levels in various occupations 

Source: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work

The following image shows ILO’s recommended exposure limits of noise levels per day:

ILO's recommended exposure limits of noise levels per day

Source: ILO Physical Hazards Noise, ILO Noise at work

General signs of hearing loss

It's important to spot hearing loss as soon as possible because early signs can help to identify the problem quickly.

Early signs of hearing loss can include:

  • ringing in the ears
  • inability to hear soft and high-pitched sounds
  • muffling of speech and other sounds
  • trouble understanding conversations at a distance or in a crowd
  • listening to music or watching television with the volume higher than other people need
  • difficulty hearing the telephone or doorbell
  • finding it difficult to tell which direction noise is coming from
  • regularly feeling tired or stressed, from having to concentrate while listening
  • answering or responding inappropriately in conversations
  • reading lips or more intently watching people’s faces during conversations
  • feeling annoyed at other people because of not understanding them
  • feeling nervous about trying to hear and understand others.

Research suggests it takes 10 years from the time someone notices they have hearing loss before they do anything about it.

Occupational noise burden

Excessive noise is a global occupational health hazard with considerable social and physiological impacts. Exposure to loud noise from all sources accounts for about 20 per cent of adult-onset hearing loss, while 16 per cent of the disabling hearing loss in adults is attributed to occupational noise. Noise-induced hearing loss is considered the 15th most serious health problem in the world.

World map showing global occupational noise burden

Worldwide – affects approximately 250 million workers

UAE – 4,500 cases of noise-induced hearing loss (2008)

USA – more than 30 million workers exposed to hazardous noise

Sub-Saharan Africa – 1.06 million workers affected

Europe – 28 per cent of workforce exposed to high-level occupational noise

European map highlighting occupational noise burden

Belgium 25 per cent

Czech Republic 55.5 per cent

Denmark 30 per cent

Germany 20 per cent

Netherlands 17 per cent

Noise-induced hearing loss is the most common reported occupational disease in Europe. Twenty per cent of Europe’s workers have to raise their voices to be heard for at least half of the time that they are at work, while seven per cent suffer from hearing difficulties. In 2000, 29 per cent of workers in the EU–15 and 35 per cent in the new member states reported being exposed to high-level noise at least one quarter of the time and 11 per cent all the time.

In the United Kingdom, it is estimated that there are more than 10 million individuals (about 1 in 6) with some degree of hearing impairment or deafness. Over one million workers are exposed to levels of noise that put their hearing at risk, with 17 per cent suffering hearing loss, tinnitus or other hearing-related conditions as a result of exposure to excessive noise at work.

Health effects of noise

When individuals are exposed to high levels of noise in the workplace, they can suffer from various adverse health effects. These health effects can be caused by a single exposure to a very loud noise or by exposure to raised levels of noise over a prolonged period of time.

The effects of noise on hearing depend on:

  • noise intensity or sound pressure
  • frequency or pitch of sound
  • exposure time
  • distance from source
  • individual susceptibility
  • other factors (life-style, age, disease, genetics and so on).

The most well-known effect of occupational noise is hearing impairment. However, it can also exacerbate other health conditions. Some individuals are more sensitive to noise than others and will suffer harm more readily through noise exposure.

The main health effects include the following:

Tinnitus

Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is the early sign of hearing damage. Excessive exposure to noise increases the risk of tinnitus. If the noise is impulsive, the risk can rise substantially. Tinnitus can be a very distressing condition and can lead to disturbed sleep and affected speech. There is no effective cure for this condition but there is treatment available for easing the symptoms. More information on Tinnitus is available from the UK’s National Health Service.

Noise-induced hearing loss

Noise-induced hearing loss occurs because excessive noise damages the delicate hearing mechanism of the inner ear. It is the most common preventable occupational health condition across the world. The level of noise that is likely to damage hearing varies depending on the individual’s characteristics and the duration for which they’re exposed to the noise.

Hearing loss is a common health problem that often develops with age (presbycusis). It is linked with genetic inheritance and other illnesses, and is also caused by exposure to excessive noise. Hearing loss is not always gradual: it can occur when an individual is exposed to very intense or loud noise for a short period of time such as a loud explosion. This condition is known as acoustic trauma.

Furthermore, the ear's sensitivity level decreases as a measure of protection against exposure to noise. This process is known as a shift in the threshold of hearing, meaning that only sounds louder than a certain level will be heard. The shift may be temporary or permanent. Short-term hearing loss can be experienced as a temporary threshold shift. It may occur suddenly after exposure to intense and/or loud noise, a situation most individuals have experienced at some point in their lives. Temporary threshold shift results in temporary hearing loss. However, repeated exposure to such intense or loud noise normally transforms this into a permanent loss, or permanent threshold shift.

Permanent threshold shift occurs when individuals have been regularly exposed to high levels of noise over a long period of time. It also occurs when exposed to noise repeatedly without sufficient time between exposures to allow recovery of normal hearing, resulting in permanent hearing damage. The UK’s National Health Service provides more information on hearing loss.

Loss of hearing can have a huge impact on an individual’s personal and work life. Once hearing has been damaged, there’s currently no known cure or effective treatment.

Effect on pregnancy

Exposure of pregnant workers to high noise levels can affect the unborn child. Research suggests that prolonged exposure of the unborn child to high noise levels during pregnancy may have an effect on a child’s later hearing and that low frequencies have a greater potential for causing harm.

Physiological effects

Noise can have an effect on the cardiovascular system, resulting in an increase in blood pressure and the release of catecholamines in the blood. An increased level of catecholamines in the blood is associated with stress.

Occupational stress

Occupational stress rarely has a single cause and often arises from the interaction of several risk factors. Persistent noise in the work environment can be a stressor even at quite low levels.

Other effects

Excessive levels of noise can increase the likelihood of undesired events or incidents by:

  • distracting workers, such as drivers
  • making it harder for workers to hear and understand instructions correctly
  • masking the sound of approaching danger and warning signals
  • contributing to irritation and annoyance that may lead to human error.

An individual’s performance in tasks demanding continuous attention (safety-critical tasks) may be affected by noise as it can distract them, resulting in poor judgements and decision-making process.

Note: Exposure to excessive noise is not the only risk factor that can result in hearing impairment. Certain chemical agents known as ototoxic chemicals and medications can also cause damage to the hearing. There are over 200 identified chemical agents that may affect hearing on temporarily or permanent basis. Exposure to such chemicals may increase the effects of noise on hearing loss.