What is an Acceptable Level of Noise at Work?

Noise at Work: How Loud is Too Loud?

Excessive noise at work can be irritating, distracting and potentially harmful to workers’ physical and mental health. The problem is, many employers struggle to determine exactly what is an acceptable level of noise at work, perhaps unsurprising given the subjectivity of terms like ‘excessive’ and ‘acceptable’.  For example, while one person might not be particularly bothered about incessant chatting in the office, another might find it impossible to concentrate, to the detriment of their concentration, productivity and, potentially, their mental wellbeing.

To confound matters further, the risks associated with noise at work vary greatly from one employee to the next. Contributing factors include the intensity, duration and nature of the noise, the worker’s proximity to its source, and the amount of time they spend in its vicinity – to name but a small handful.

So what is an acceptable level of noise at work?

What are considered to be acceptable noise levels at work depends on whether the risks to health are physical, psychological or both. Indicators of excessive noise at work include:

  • Physical – tinnitus and hearing loss; also impaired communication, which could result in failure to hear alarms and warning signals in the event of an emergency.
  • Psychological – difficulty concentrating, reduced productivity, work-related stress and insomnia.

In addition, there is also a legal element which requires employers to take action at certain noise levels and ensure that the legal limits on noise exposure are not exceeded to protect workers’ hearing.  A word of caution here.  Noise-induced hearing loss claims are on the up since 2001. Most of these are made by staff against their employers and relate to deafness and hearing problems that have come about as a result of noise issues in the workplace.

If you think noise in the workplace could be affecting the physical health and safety of staff, you should adopt a strict risk management regime. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations (2005) in the UK outline six key steps for employers:

  • Assess the noise risk using a sound meter
  • Take action to reduce the noise exposure that presents that risk
  • Provide staff with hearing protection if required
  • Ensure that noise does not exceed legal limits*
  • Provide staff with sufficient information and training
  • Carry out regular hearing surveillance

* Acceptable levels of noise at work: Up to 80 or 87dB, depending on the nature of the noise.

If you are absolutely certain - that is you have checked that there is no direct risk to workers’ physical health and safety - i.e. that the risk factors associated with noise at work are purely mental or psychological in nature, you are not legally obliged to take the steps as shown above. 

However, in the interests of your staff’s mental well-being and productivity as well as your duty of care as an employer, further action is strongly recommended. Speak directly with each individual member of staff to find out whether they generally find noise levels at work acceptable or if it’s affecting them in any way. If noise is considered a problem, organise meetings and put up signs to raise awareness about the issue. Move affected staff to quieter areas, replace old or noisy machinery, and put up a noise activated warning sign, which will illuminate when a chosen noise level is exceeded.

If you would like to know more about what is an acceptable level of noise at work or wish to purchase a sound meter, go to www.pulsarinstruments.com. Pulsar Instruments manufactures and supplies quality noise monitoring equipment designed for health and safety professionals, and can help you find the perfect solution for your business. Call us on 01723 518011 for advice or to enquire further about their products and services.