Speak up

Noise at work remains a problem for many employees. Employees have had to put up with excessive noise at work for well over 100 years. Indeed, many still do. Yet it was the 1960s before the government started to take any interest in the dangers facing these vulnerable employees, and did not introduce legislation for almost 30 years after that.

Keith Spicer, a personal injury lawyer with Thompsons, provides an overview of the protection available to employees now and advises what employees should do if they think they have a claim.

Government action

In 1963, the government’s Ministry of Labour produced a safety booklet “Noise and the Worker” which finally acknowledged the problem of noise at work. It suggested a danger level of about 85 decibels (db) if exposure was for more than eight hours a day, five days a week. It recommended a number of safety steps that employees should take to reduce exposure, including wearing some form of protection.

Then, in 1972, the government introduced the “Code of Practice for Reducing the Exposure of Employed Persons to Noise” and suggested further and improved safety steps.

This included reducing exposure to less than 90db over an eight-hour working day, carrying out workplace noise surveys, setting control measures to reduce noise exposure and providing hearing protection.

It was not until 1990 that the government introduced legislation – The Noise at Work Regulations 1989 – to force employers to comply with the earlier guidance notes. It set two action levels for steps to be taken to reduce employees’ noise exposure – 85db and above, and 90db and above.

On 6 April 2006 it introduced the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 to reduce the two action levels of exposure to 80db and 85db. These also required employers to carry out audiometric testing on their employees to discover their level of hearing loss, first recommended by the 1963 safety booklet.

Establishing the cause

Needless to say, excessive noise exposure is only one cause of deafness so claimants have to prove that their loss of hearing was due to noise and not some other cause, such as ageing.

So would compulsory testing, which the government is thinking of introducing for the over 55s, help in establishing the cause of the problem? Possibly, but it may not be in everyone’s best interests as some employees (such as train drivers or anyone working with machinery) may lose their job if their hearing is found to be impaired. If that does turn out to be the case, though, their claim can include loss of earnings.

And in any event, most large employers in noisy workplaces started to test their employees’ hearing on a regular basis in the 1970s. Indeed, this innovation was partly the catalyst, once employees knew the reason for their hearing loss, for the first deafness claims in this country.

Difficult to win

These are not, however, easy to prove. Take the recent case of 4,000 textile workers in Nottingham who tried, but failed, to show that the hearing loss of ten employees (brought as test cases) was due to noise at work.

In most cases, the level of noise exposure was below 85db and all cases involved exposure before the 1989 regulations came in to force. Only one case is being appealed.

Still worth trying

However, it is always worth trying to bring a claim if an individual thinks they have suffered hearing loss due to noise at work. They should contact their union rep or union's legal advice service. Remember, claims must be brought within three years of the person becoming aware that their hearing has been impaired.