A Brief Outline
This post was triggered by a project carried out in June 2019. The project was arranged in response to an operative filing a complaint to his health and safety manager regarding an irritating and distracting noise coming from some machinery located on the other side of the bay wall.
The worker was aware that the noise levels were likely to be harmless to his hearing. His issue was how the noise was a distraction, causing unnecessary distractions from his work.
This employee's work required intricate movements and applications through high levels of concentration. He was part of a small quality inspection team, analysing and testing components for defects before they were dispatched to customers.
The low-frequency noise from an operational testbed located on the opposite side of the breeze block wall was travelling through the wall, causing a dull-sounding, continuous noise - distracting him from his work.
Nuisance Noise Explained
Noise is described as a sound which is loud and causes a disturbance. Distractive noise however, does not necessarily have to be loud. Therefore, low-level noise which has distractive characteristics can result in heightened stress levels, a lack of or broken concentration, intermittent lapses in focus and decreased patience.
In most cases, noise issues are expressed where levels are high enough to pose a foreseeable risk to hearing. Where such risks are prevalent, an assessment of noise levels should take place. However, in some cases, we notice that line managers and safety professionals don't consider the mental implications and impacts on productivity that nuisance noise can cause, and therefore accept that noise below 80dB(A) to be acceptable.
Research suggests that it can take a somebody up to 20 minutes to regain full concentration after being disturbed. Imagine having significantly detrimental lapses in concentration and consider the impact this is having on productivity and job/task efficiency.
So, what can be done?
Rather than carrying out a noise survey, measuring against statutory limits, it would be more beneficial to approach the issue from another angle more suited to the scenario. Again, the noise problem in this situation comes down to the poor ergonomic design of a work station - designing a workplace that allows operatives to perform their job with minimal disturbances should form part of such design considerations.
The work environment should be deemed suitable for the task at hand. If intricate work is required, then a quiet and comfortable environment with minimal distraction should be considered initially.
Here are some further controls that can be implemented to reduce nuisance noise:
Eliminate the source, or eliminate the operative from the source. That said, either move the noise source or relocate the operative to an area more suited;
Substitute the noise source for a quieter alternative. In this case, the test rig behind the breeze block wall could not be practicably removed in our opinion;
Apply engineering controls to the noise source - we believed the noise was travelling through the wall and the floor. We advised mounting the test rig on rubber dampers and also advised that the workplace designers consider insulating the wall further. When the rig wasn’t in use, we advised that it is powered down;
Staff rotation could have been considered, however, the benefit of this would not seem beneficial in this instance.
What Should Be Done in Line with the Regulations?
The Health and Safety at Work Act and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations both state that a suitable and sufficient assessment of risk should be carried out with regards to worker wellbeing. In our opinion, the relationship between ergonomic design and worker mental health and wellbeing should be considered, especially where concerns have been raised regarding unsuitable and distracting working environments, resulting in work-related stress, an increased risk of lapses in concentration leading to job faults and oversights and more.
A suitable design of the workplace should be ensured. Management can further understand the importance of providing the right working environment for their workers by using INDG90, a Health and Safety Executive publication, to help implement a suitable design strategy - http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg90.pdf
Further guidance can be gained from the Charted Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors where a number of resources can be found, helping you plan and deliver on higher standards. https://www.ergonomics.org.uk/Public/Resources/Standards.asp
In summary, it is important that more awareness is gained around work-related stress associated with poorly designed workstations, particularly where distractions due to noise cause operatives to become frustrated, irritated and suffer a loss of focus as a result. Ultimately, we would recommend training managers to help them understand the relationship between ergonomic design and worker behaviour and how such elements can impact on mental health and productivity and a positive or negative manner.
Workplace Scientifics are able to design departmental awareness training packages to suit your business needs. To find out more, visit www.workplacescientifics.com/training.
For help managing your Noise and Ergonomic requirements, please don't hesitate to contact us today for free advice.