Firms are liable for up to £150 000 for every employee who suffers hearing loss as a result of their job – unless they do the following …
More than 1.3 million employees may be working in unnecessarily high noise levels. This is the claim of research published by the TUC and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People as they launched a campaign to reduce workplace noise. Despite recent personal injury payouts of up to £150 000, too many employers are still not acting to prevent hearing loss. Employers must be proactive to comply with the Noise at Work Regulations 1989. This is particularly important because hearing damage may not be noticed by an individual until many years after the exposure.


The principal aim of the regulations is to ensure that no employee suffers hearing damage at work. A competent person must carry out a noise assessment, which should identify where action levels may be breached and recommend remedial measures.

There are two action levels:

  • 85-90 dB(A) or above. The employer must provide employees with information on the risks of hearing damage and suitable ear protection for any affected employee who asks for it

  • 90 dB(A) and above. Employers must clearly delineate ear protection zones, provide suitable protection and ensure that it is used.

Reducing noise levels

Many methods can be used to reduce noise levels at source, for example:

  • repairing or replacing noisy equipment

  • taking noise abatement measures, such as fitting silencers or providing enclosures

  • minimising the number of people affected by siting noisy machinery in little-used areas of the site

    • If people two metres apart have trouble hearing each other, firms must make a risk assessment
    • Providing ear protection is a last resort

  • tell employees about the noise risks and arrange routine hearing tests for those at risk Only if noise levels cannot be reduced below the action levels should ear protectors be provided. These must be suitable for the level of noise, the individual, and the work carried out. Employers must also ensure that such ear protectors are worn correctly: they are of little use as decorations to a hard hat.

What does an assessment involve?

Noise levels are measured in decibels (dB) which are then weighted to provide an indication of the effect it has on a human over an eight-hour working day. Noise levels in the regulations are quoted as dB(A).

The Health and Safety Executive has provided guidance on how long employees should be exposed to particular noise levels; for example 90 dB (A) is acceptable for eight hours, 93 dB (A) is acceptable for four, and so on. Therefore, to carry out effective noise assessments, the assessor must know the instantaneous noise level and the likely period of exposure.

The following examples of activities could lead to hearing damage unless preventative steps are taken:

  • first action level – 85 to 90 dB(A): sandblasting; concrete chipping or drilling, floor finishing or grinding; driving crawler tractors, dumpers, graders, rollers of wheeled loaders; M&E installation; reinforcement.

  • second action level – 90 dB(A) or above: piling; concrete pouring, digging/scabbling; shovelling hordcore or shuttering; form work; ganger; carpenter; chainsaw operation.


If people standing six feet apart have difficulty speaking to each other, then the employer must carry out a noise assessment of the working environment, and may need to take measures to reduce noise levels. Where noise levels cannot be reduced effectively at source, then employers must ensure that workers receive and wear suitable ear protection where noise levels exceed 90 dB(A) over an eight-hour working day.