Measuring noise in your company: how does that work?

Did you know that hearing damage is one of the leading causes of occupational illnesses? But even if noise does not cause (temporary or permanent) damage, it can still be stressful and/or trigger concentration problems. So the key question is when does noise become disruptive or harmful? A noise measurement provides the answer. Davy Vanspauwen, our health and safety officer for industrial hygiene and toxicology, explains the how and why.

The consequences of noise can be severe: hearing loss, ringing in the ears (tinnitus) or sensitivity to sound (hyperacusis). Whether or not you are required to measure noise levels in your work environment depends on the results of the risk analysis. If this analysis shows exposure to noise during work, the internal or external prevention department must carry out a noise measurement. A repeat or follow-up measurement is then conducted after any change in the situation, such as a change to the number of noise sources or rearrangement of the workplace. The occupational physician can also request a new measurement based on medical complaints received.

Mensura Health and Safety Officer Davy Vanspauwen and his team conduct dozens of these measurements each year, primarily in industry and construction, though also in schools and day-care centres, care facilities, institutional kitchens and office environments.

The requests originate from employers, health and safety officers, occupational physicians and others, mostly based on risk analyses, but also in relation to a specific factor, such as a visit by the Labour Inspectorate, a different type of measurement (such as dust particles) or a work-related accident.

A noise map: heat map of your work environment

Davy Vanspauwen explains how this type of measurement is usually done: “We start by mapping the various sources of noise in your work environment. We then carry out stationary measurements at a number of strategic points. This is done using a sound meter on a tripod. Apart from volume, the meter also picks up the type of sound, whether it’s cyclical, continuous or sporadic, and so on. The result is a noise map. Colour coding in the heat map shows the employer where hearing protection is recommended or required.”

Dosimeters: monitoring individual exposure

The noise map is a handy tool for internal health and safety officers, but is not enough in itself. Davy explains, “The heat map shows the sounds produced in the work environment, but not the degree to which every individual employee is exposed to those sounds.”

To obtain an overview of this, a dosimeter is used. Davy continues, “We place this measurement tool close to the employee’s ear in order to monitor exposure to noise during an entire workday or shift. This analysis makes it possible for organisations to determine where hearing protection is needed on the individual, position or team level.”

Acoustic interventions: there's still room for improvement...

Of course, not only do high decibels pose a risk on the production floor, but sounds that are not directly harmful to hearing can also be unpleasant and cause stress. For example, the humming sound of an air conditioning unit, the clattering of plates and cutlery in the dining area, colleagues talking on the phone, annoying background noises from adjacent rooms, and so on.

In other words, there are plenty of benefits to be had by measuring noise in non-industrial work environments. Davy adds, “Acoustic insulation or other soundproofing materials can often work wonders for employee well-being. An acoustic measurement lets us identify problems in the infrastructure.”

Hearing protection as a last resort

Noise measurements make it possible to determine the types of hearing protection that is recommend or required and when. All the same, earplugs or earmuffs should be considered as a last resort. Most important is to reduce exposure to harmful or stressful sounds.

Placing or shielding machines in closed rooms, for example, or replacing old ones with new ones, can be helpful. Another option is to have employees rotate positions during the workday or shift in order to prevent them from having to spend hours on end working in a high-decibel or uncomfortably noisy area.

Noise continues to be an underestimated problem

Finally, it is important to maintain awareness of the risks of noise, stresses Davy. “Our Noise training course helps promote this. After all, noise is still an underestimated problem, not only in the workplace, but also in leisure time. All too often, earplugs are removed after the shift ends and the music turned up all the way in the car on the way home.”