New guidelines on noise pollution


The Health and Safety Authority is to publish guidelines and launch apro-active inspection programme to protect the call-centreworkers, bar and nightclub staff and all others at risk of permanent hearingloss from exposure to high noise levels in the workplace

Sssh! Next Wednesday is Noise Action Day in the UK, an event organised by non-governmental organisations promoting a quieter life.

But preventing noise pollution is not all about being separated from the "neighbours from hell" by more than wafer-thin walls.

Health and safety regulations and EU guidelines mean some sectors of industry are increasingly having to deal with the consequences of noise both for employees and the environment.

The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) lists noise as one of the hazards that can be found in the workplace, warning that exposure can cause permanent hearing loss.

Efforts should be made to reduce the noise at source or personal hearing protectors should be provided, according to its guidelines. Using ear plugs is a straightforward enough preventive measure if you're operating a pneumatic drill, but what happens when what you put over your ears is a source of noise rather than a protective barrier?

Call-centre workers, for example, sometimes have to turn up earphones to hear the customer at the other end of the line instead of the telephone chatter of their co-workers, sitting at workstations a couple of feet away.

Sudden loud noises sometimes pierce through headsets, including the high-pitched beeps that sound when callers attempt to send a fax through to the telephone line.

Similarly, bar staff need to be able to hear their customers' orders, but are subjected to loud, often thumping, music for sustained periods of time.

Miming the drink you want to order, like in the Baileys ad, doesn't work.

"Hearing protection is relatively commonplace and advanced in industries like the construction industry, but not in the entertainment industry," says Mr Tommy O'Sullivan, an inspector with the Health and Safety Authority. "Employees working at the counter can't wear ear muffs, so the only practical solution really is to lower the sound level."

According to a Western Health Board study published this year, "limiters" should become mandatory in nightclubs to control excessive noise levels.

The study of 18 nightclubs and 13 music bars in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon found that 86 per cent exceeded the 110 decibel maximum level set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which declared noise a threat to health in 1996.

Staff could suffer hearing damage after seven minutes without adequate protection, the study claimed.

Noise doesn't cause pain in the ears until about 140 decibels, but health specialists say that long-term exposure to anything over 85 decibels, when voices have to be raised to be heard, can cause hearing problems. At most nightclubs or concert venues, the level would be about 100.

This year, the HSA says it plans to publish guidelines on noise in places of entertainment as well as carrying out 100 inspections as part of a pro-active inspection programme. The inspections, which will take place in the second half of the year, are the result of "some complaints from employees as well as our own recognition that there is likely to be some problem with noise", confirms Mr O'Sullivan.

"There is a heightened awareness among employers about noise levels, perhaps with civil compensation claims at the back of their mind," says Mr O'Sullivan, and the onus will be on the employer to comply with any legal notices issued by the Authority as a result of excessive noise levels.

But some companies have more than their own staff to worry about: environmental noise is the source of an increasing number of complaints from the public, and industries that require an Integrated Pollution Control (IPC) licence may have conditions attached that affect control over noise emissions.

When limits are set, the location of the activity, background noise levels and proximity to noise-sensitive locations such as houses, hospitals and schools are taken into account, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which defines noise as "unwanted sound".

"Noise is something that is considered to be a nuisance; therefore noise isn't tolerated and companies would have to comply with the terms of their licence," says a spokeswoman for the EPA.

To date there have been no prosecutions for noise pollution, but according to the EPA's Millennium Report, approximately 13 per cent of complaints received by the EPA relating to IPC licences concern noise problems. These range from sleep disturbance due to night-time noise from large industrial plants to relatively low levels of noise in rural areas where background noise levels are very low.

Although everybody from ice-cream van drivers in the US to mobile phone operators in Spain and lawnmower manufacturers all over Europe have been the target of anti-noise campaigners, one sector that has been at the forefront of legislation is the airline industry.

Engineering advances mean that modern aircraft are now about four times quieter than those in use during the 1960s, and since April 1st, certain types of older, noisier aircraft - called Chapter 2 aircraft - are no longer allowed to fly at Dublin Airport, in accordance with international legislation.

But after a long-running dispute with the European Union, US manufacturers are now allowed to fit aircraft with a muffling device called a "hushkit" in order to make older aircraft pass noise tests.

Last October, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that night flights at Heathrow airport violated the human rights of eight residents living underneath their flight path. At Dublin Airport, there is much less housing congestion surrounding the runways than there is at Heathrow, but the impact of noise on local communities is still taken seriously.

Aer Rianta has invested almost €1 million on a noise and flight track monitoring system designed to help develop noise control procedures, and since November last year, aircraft departing or arriving at Dublin Airport between 11.00 p.m. and 6.00 a.m. are only able to use the runway that carries traffic over Santry, Artane or Beaumont if there are no other runways available.

Noise is an inevitable by-product of most activities, but reducing excessive levels is not just the aim of those community groups unlucky enough to live next to airports, stadiums or dog kennels.

The drive to reduce noise emissions is being led by the European Commission, which says health and quality of life for at least 25 per cent of the EU's population is reduced by environmental noise from industry, transport and recreation.