Ear to the ground

Written by: Lee Nicholson | Published:

Noise-induced hearing loss is one of the most common industrial hazards globally – a million people are exposed to potentially harmful noise at work in the UK alone. And the problem is prevalent in the recycling and waste management industry, writes Lee Nicholson, MD at noise control specialist Wakefield Acoustics

Working within the recycling and waste management industry can be particularly dangerous, and workers and employers need to be aware of the hazards. One such hazard is noise, and more specifically, exposure to high levels of noise, which can endanger employees. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), also known as industrial deafness, is a common health risk in a number of industries, especially the recycling and waste business where workers are exposed to potentially harmful noise levels on a day-to-day basis.

Although noise is not a problem specific to the recycling and waste management sector, the particular characteristics of key industry processes often combine to create complex industrial and environmental noise challenges.

Recycling and waste management plants are comprised of several processes, which have the potential to cause noise issues. Processes such as separating, grinding, compacting and crushing, all of which are used to recycle materials such as metals, plastics and glass, can all produce noise levels which are harmful to workers. Meanwhile, the noise created from vehicle traffic around sites can also add to the excessive levels.

The health dangers of noise

NIHL, caused by prolonged exposure to excessive noise levels, can cause a wide range of long-term and often irreversible health impacts, including permanent hearing loss, tinnitus, cardiovascular diseases, sleep disturbance, stress, brain impairment and mental health issues.

Excessive noise is not only detrimental to the health and safety of staff, but can also lead to lower productivity (with a requirement for increased staffing to cover for absenteeism), or shorter hours of operation, which in turn can affect output.

Faced with such business and health impacts, the recycling and waste management industry has placed a greater emphasis on noise-control measures. In fact, the industry is now proactively addressing these noise issues during the design and construction of waste management and recycling plants.

Important changes to noise legislation have also placed an increased emphasis on reducing noise at recycling and waste plants, not only to protect workers, but also to cut environmental noise. The challenges that the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 – implemented under EU directive 2003/10/EC – present to the recycling and waste industry are substantial.

Industrial noise levels are legislated within the UK under the Control Of Noise At Work Regulations 2005. More stringent control requirements reduced the upper and lower action levels by 5dB from 90 and 85dB(A) in the previous directive to 85 and 80dB(A) and introduced a new exposure limit of 87dB(A).

Equally important, the latest regulations move away from a focus of earlier legislation on assessment, quantification of exposure and consequent hearing protection, to an attitude of controlling noise at source wherever possible.

Noise legislation

Environmental noise is addressed within the European Noise Directive along with BS4142.

This European directive, which focuses principally on the road, rail and air traffic sectors, was subsequently adopted in the UK under the Environmental Noise Regulations 2006 (separately for England, Scotland and Wales). Within the UK, BS4142 outlines the method of rating and assessing industrial and commercial noise. This standard is often used as a basis for the design and implementation of noise-control measures on a site.

Given the range of processes used on a day-to-day basis within the industry, it is no surprise that daily noise levels in the recycling and refuse sectors are regularly recorded between 93dB(A) and 99dB(A) – far in excess of the second action level of 85dB(A) set within the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005. Such noise exceeds legislative requirements and can be seriously detrimental to the health of both plant employees and local residents. Given these staggering figures, it is imperative that businesses take action to not only ensure legislative compliance, but also to protect the health of their workers.

Taking action on excessive noise

Businesses that operate within typically high-noise industries, such as recycling and waste management, are legally obligated to provide hearing protection for their workers if noise exceeds set action levels.

In addition, the regulations require employers to provide information, training and health surveillance for those employees exposed to excessive noise.

However, while personal protective equipment such as hearing protectors can help, they bring a number of problems, such as preventing communication between workers, and should only be used as a last line of defence when other forms of noise control have been exhausted.

The key to practically and cost-effectively treating noise problems starts with a very accurate diagnosis of the source. First, through detailed measurement and analysis, the dominant noise source needs to be identified. This is best achieved by taking a range of sound readings at various frequencies and turning off machinery to attempt to identify and isolate sources. Where it is possible to isolate noisy machinery, the erection of enclosures, screens and baffles around equipment should be considered.

Housing noisy machinery in less prominent areas, meaning workers are less likely to be exposed to high noise levels, can help reduce the risks associated with prolonged exposure.

Improved working techniques, adjusting working patterns to reduce lengthy exposure and implementing a low-noise machinery policy can also reduce risk. However, with the use of noisy machinery in the recycling and waste management industry, it is not often possible to take this action, and as such other noise-control measures have to be taken.

Reducing noise can be achieved by thorough examination, consideration of practical solutions, engineering controls and isolation. Inevitably though – and despite undertaking these in-house actions – situations will arise that require the use of noise-control products.

This will often result in workers being protected from potentially hazardous noise by adopting the strategy of separation. This requires the use of noise-control products such as acoustic enclosures, sound havens, screens and barriers, which are designed to isolate ‘the receiver’ from the noise source.

Technologies for noise reduction

When attempting to address noise issues, it is important that specialists in the field are consulted to assist with analysis, diagnosis and provision of noise-control measures.

When it comes to the health and safety of their workers, recycling and waste management plant owners cannot afford to ignore excessive noise.

By employing the correct strategy and solutions, companies don’t only achieve regulatory compliance, but also ensure the safety of their workforce.

Fact file: Wakefield Acoustics

Wakefield Acoustics provides noise-control solutions to the recycling and waste management industry, and the company has an inherent knowledge of recycling and waste sites, applications and processes.

This allows the business to design and install effective noise-control solutions while also addressing the client’s requirements for easy installation and effective plant functionality and maintenance.

The company’s product range includes acoustic enclosures suitable for heavy-duty applications, with various construction options from modular panel-to-panel constructions, bolted-in framework or one-piece ‘lift over’ units for quick and easy installation. Equipment maintenance is accommodated through a wide assortment of acoustic doors, windows and hinged access panels, and a variety of external finishes are possible from powder coating to wet paint and plastisol systems.

Given the high heat loads produced by industrial machinery, it is commonplace for acoustic enclosures to be designed with an integral forced ventilation system.

Wakefield Acoustics provides a range of acoustic products and services including acoustic enclosures and screens, air and gas process silencers, sound havens, acoustic louvres, acoustic consultancy and project management, along with a full installation service, operating in line with health and safety standards.

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