Threshold to prevent industrial hearing damage set at 85 decibels.

A new EU directive on noise is set to come into today.

The new regulations introduce lower acceptable noise levels at work and define what steps have to be taken by employers to protect workers.

The new EU directive sets maximum exposure values for an eight-hour period, with a weekly averaging of exposure only in justified circumstances. If the decibel threshold is exceeded, workers have to wear individual hearing protectors, employers are responsible for checking personal protection measures and must take measures to eliminate or reduce risk on the basis of a risk assessment.

According to the UK's Health and Safety Executive, 170,000 people in Britain suffer deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions resulting from harmful noise at the workplace.

All workers in noisy industries are clearly covered by this directive. However, the 85-decibel threshold could conceivably be reached also from machinery as diverse as power drills, detonators, motorcycles or electric lawnmowers.

Opinion was mixed on the new legislation. Conservative MP Philip Bushill-Matthews said the new regulations went too far.

He said: "When the European Parliament voted on this directive, the UK Health and Safety Executive at the time said that some of the amendments from UK Labour MEPs would do nothing for health and safety, but simply add to the burdens on business. The amendments passed nonetheless. This is exactly the sort of directive that needs to be revisited and simplified by the current Commission if they are to fulfill their pledge to start securing better regulation and reducing red tape."

But Labour MP Stephen Hughes defended the legislation, saying: "This is a sensible and proportionate improvement to the legislation. My own father finds it difficult at times to converse with my infant son because of industrially induced hearing loss - that is the part of the hearing spectrum most affected. These improvements will hopefully make sad situations like that - all too common in areas with a history of heavy industry - a thing of the past."