Figures released by WorkCover NSW show there were 10,753 claims made for hearing loss in NSW between 2009-2011 at an estimated cost of more than $171 million to the NSW WorkCover Scheme.
Extrapolate those numbers nationally and the issue of industrial deafness is at epidemic proportions, with businesses and the community at large paying a huge price for a problem that can be controlled through preventative measures.
John Watson, General Manager of WorkCover’s Work Health and Safety Division, said under work health and safety laws businesses must manage the risk of hearing loss from workplace noise, for which WorkCover offers rebates of up to $500 to help purchase and install safety improvements.
As Ronnie Evenden, General Manager of noise control and soundproofing specialist Flexshield explains, every business needs to understand the requirements of the Australian Standard, and ensure it is compliant.
Know the Law
According to Evenden, under the Standard, workers cannot be exposed to 85 decibels (dB) or more for longer than 8 hours. For every 3dB above that, the allowable time exposure halves. Any exposure to a peak of 140dB without protection, will do damage instantly.
"Three decibels doubles the sound power level, it doesn't double the loudness. You can't physically hear it as twice as loud, but the noise is scientifically twice as powerful," Evenden said.
The problem is that employers are not adhering to the Standard, an issue exacerbated by the fact hearing damage is often cumulative, creeping up on affected workers over time.
"85dB doesn't hurt your ears, you don't feel any pain, and in a lot of cases with people in industry they've become deaf over a period of time," Evenden said.
"Government Law actually states that PPE should be the last measure of control after all other possible methods have been taken.
"Companies need to show some proof to the authorities that they do have some process in place to eliminate the risk, be it through noise control measures like acoustic enclosures, or administrative controls such as doing the noisy work when people aren't around, or shifting it to another area."
Start with a Noise Survey
If you are an employer and you don't know whether your existing operations comply with the Standard, Evenden says the first place to begin is with a noise survey.
"We come out and do an obligation-free noise survey on the workshop. We take noise level readings from the offending noise sources and put together a report and suggestions," Evenden said.
"We can instantly tell if there is a problem."
If you do have a noise problem, Flexshield will work with your company to engineer a solution that not only complies with the Standard, but equally importantly doesn't negatively impact on the productivity of the machinery or its operators.
"To do the job properly like an acoustic enclosure there are a lot of things that need to be taken into account," Evenden said.
"Effectively you are putting a box around the machine you are working on, so you still have to have the full usability, maintenance access, in and out feeds etc.
"We take detailed physical dimensions. Then we talk to the customer about maintenance requirements, access to the machine, ask them to do a demonstration on how they run it so we can ensure we aren’t putting anything cumbersome or encroaching on their workspace. Then we sketch it up, cost it up and give them a proposal to solve their noise issue and effectively come under the government regulation and ensure they are safe from any infringement.
"It's not always achievable. We could be working on a machine that's 140dB and our aim is to get it down to the 85dB. To get it below that is excellent and there are ways to do it, but it's not always practical.
"But if we are working on a machine that is 100dB then we would well and truly expect to get it below the 82dB."
Selecting a Supplier
When considering which supplier to work with, Evenden recommends doing your homework. After all, as he says, an investment in noise control isn't necessarily a cheap one.
"You need to consider the test results of the products put forward in the proposal," Evenden said.
"So, for instance, for an acoustic panel or acoustic curtain what are the laboratory test results? We have NATA-certified laboratory testing on our products so we can back up our solution.
"There are solutions out there that are not NATA-tested, or those that have their own in-house test reports.
"It's peace of mind for the customer, that they are going to make this investment in a product that will work - one that has proven test results, not just something that's put together by an engineering company with a piece of paper that says it should meet this (Standard)."
The Cost of Non-Compliance
Noise control solutions may not come cheap, but the consequences of failing to meet the Standard are infinitely more expensive, and that's before factoring in the human cost.
Fines, litigation, lost-time injury, even WorkCover, council, or the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) stepping in are just some of the risks you are taking by ignoring your noise control obligations.
"These authorities have full power to come in and put restrictions on the operation. They can say you can only work certain hours, in some cases they can shut the place down," Evenden said.
Don't say you haven't been warned.