Why is noise a problem?

Noise is a serious hazard in many workplaces and can have a permanent effect on workers exposed to it.

Permanent damage: Many workers are exposed to noise levels well above the exposure standard. This can apply to workers in manufacturing, transport and in the hospitality industry, particularly those working in areas where there is live entertainment, or in a "disco" or club environment.

If workers have to raise their voice to make themselves heard to someone who is one metre or less away, then the noise level is probably above the legal limit. This is about the level of heavy traffic. This level of noise can cause tinnitus (a ringing, buzzing or roaring sound in the ears which can be very disturbing and can interfere with sleep - more information on tinnitus, from the UK) and permanent hearing loss/damage.

However, many employees in other workplaces are affected by noise in the areas they work. Noise at well below the levels it can still damage hearing and can be a hazard for a number of other reasons:

Communication problems: Trying to hear people in noisy surroundings requires extra concentration and strain. Messages or instructions can be misunderstood, creating confusion, frustration and safety problems. Having to raise your voice, or shout, to be heard above noise levels can lead to throat and voice disorders.

Fatigue and stress: Constant noise makes it difficult to concentrate and adds to the fatigue of work. There can often be a constant, annoying level of noise in some workplaces due to customers, the noise of gaming machines, background music, machinery and so on. Furthermore, sometimes it is very difficult to find any "quiet" areas in which to take a break, for example sometimes even the staff canteen can be noisy.

Noise of this type is very annoying and is a recognised workplace "stressor" (ie a cause of stress). Nerve impulses sent to the brain, which recognises them as sound, are also sent to other parts of the body stimulating the production of hormones such as adrenalin. This may result in:

  • irritability,
  • tiredness or nervousness,
  • interference in concentration,
  • increase in incidence of accidents,
  • long term ill health.

Safety hazard: Noise can distract attention, or drown out the sound of a malfunctioning machine, an approaching forklift, an alarm signal or a warning shout.

Productivity and profitability: Studies indicate that high noise levels are associated with high levels of absenteeism and staff turnover.

Acoustic Shock: an issue particularly with workers using headsets - this is where the wearer is exposed to short but very loud bursts of noise which can temporarily or permanently damage the wearer's hearing. It is also reported as being very painful to receive. There have been a number of compensation cases both in Victoria and around the world. In the UK, British Telecom paid out £93,000 to one worker. (More information on acoustic shock). 

Ototoxic chemicals: the combined exposure to noise and other agents such as organic solvents, carbon monoxide, some metals and other ototoxic chemicals can increase the risk of hearing loss. ('ototoxic' chemicals are chemicals that are poisonous to the inner ear or the vestibulocochlear nerve. Because the inner ear is involved in both hearing and balance, ototoxicity can result in disturbances of either or both of these senses)

Recently there has been research published finding links between between occupational exposure to loud noise and coronary heart disease (See SafetyNet 343) and also between exposure to noise and obesity.

In areas where tasks require concentration, the average daily noise exposure should not be above 50-55 dB(A).

If you want further information on noise, its effects and what can be done about it, contact your union.

Last amended October 2015

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