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November 24, 2005

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People before GBP pounds

“Noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible, but 100-per-cent preventable” was the overwhelming message from the Sound Off — Noise Reduction at Work conference held at Earls Court in October.

With the revised Noise at Work Regulations fast approaching, IOSH, in collaboration with the HSE and RNID, with support from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, invited businesses to learn more about the impact these changes will have on their workplaces.

In all, 509,000 people in Great Britain are estimated to have hearing difficulties as a result of noise at work (Medical Research Council survey 1997/98), difficulties that could have, and should have, been prevented. The human cost of the problem can be devastating. Losing the ability to communicate with the world not only affects both work and homelife but also dramatically reduces quality of life in general. The constant buzzing of tinnitus or the pain caused by hyperacusis cannot be cured, just as hearing aids can only lessen the effect of hearing loss and not remove it completely.

But what about the business cost? Like all work-related issues, financial expense on noise reduction has to be justified. But should workplace health really be subject to the same budgetary hurdles as ordering stationery or agreeing an advertising budget? Doesn’t the human cost matter more?

When asked how much she had budgeted for the noise-reduction strategy at the BBC, Susanna Everton didn’t quantify but stated: “It simply had to be done, so we did it.” Alastair McCubbin, from Cadbury, said his company anticipated the costs of their noise reduction programme would be recouped within seven-and-a-half years through savings on the cost of PPE and accidents. This shows it is possible to make the business case for affirmative action on noise.

Education is everything

Supplying PPE and putting noise reduction policies in place will not have any effect if employees see these measures as a burden. Getting buy-in from all areas of business was identified as key to the success of any noise reduction programme.

Alastair McCubbin said the success of Cadbury’s strategy was dependent on support from the board of directors, as well as the 6170 staff across their 12 UK sites. Educating people about NIHL ensures this buy-in, but poses an entirely different set of challenges to that of reducing noise in the first place.

As Brian Lamb, director of communications at RNID, pointed out: “We may have a generation losing their hearing right now through the effects of clubbing and socialising in noisy bars.”

It is clear that people need to understand sound a lot better before fully appreciating why a reduction in noise levels is necessary, and how best to protect hearing from dangerous decibels.

Act now

All speakers encouraged delegates to act sooner rather than later, and to comply with the revised regulations as soon as possible. The entertainment industry has a further two years to reach the legal standards but this hasn’t stopped the BBC from ensuring early compliance. Susanna Everton explained that 2008 is considered the deadline for “honing the work that has already been done”.

For employees, too, the advice is to act on hearing problems as soon as they are felt rather than waiting until they become unbearable: “Acquired deafness is insidious, it creeps up on you,” Angela King, from the RNID, explained. “People are reluctant to follow up when they have problems with their hearing, unlike with their sight.”

Drowning out the noise

There’s a great deal of work to be done in order to meet the deadline for compliance. However, with the support of IOSH members, UK businesses will be able to meet that deadline, confident that their noise reduction programmes are effective and ensuring the health of their workforce, as well as their profit margins.

Safety minister Lord Hunt stipulated the long-term goal in his opening remarks: “Full compliance with the regulations would eventually eliminate the disease.” There can be no better incentive than that.

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