Hearing damage: the unseen danger

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Hearing protection is necessary without masking other audible alarms
Hearing protection is necessary without masking other audible alarms

Related tags Occupational safety and health

Many workers in the food and drink manufacturing sector are being exposed to dangerous levels of noise that could cause permanent damage to their hearing, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which has updated guidance to help protect them.

In the second edition of ‘A Recipe For Safety’, published this year, the HSE urges companies to do more to protect their staff and this includes protection from unnecessary exposure to noise. It is a move which has been welcomed by 3M, which supplies hearing protection advice and equipment.

According to 3M, most food and drink manufacturers use processes that emit noise exceeding the 80dB(A) and 85db(A) levels at which employers are legally required to take action. These include glass bottling lines, packaging machinery and milling operations.

17,000 suffer hearing problems

Currently more than 17,000 people in the UK suffer from deafness or tinnitus because of workplace noise, the HSE guidance claimed. While these two conditions are the most common, the harmful effects of noise can also lead to a number of other serious problems, such as depression.

However, as hearing dangers are invisible and the effects are not immediate, they do not always receive the appropriate attention as health hazards, warned 3M.

“In my experience, the problem with personal protective equipment (PPE) in the food industry is that hearing protection tends to be the last thing thought about,” ​said Malcolm Thompson, hearing and communications specialist at 3M.

“Employees are being told they have to wear protection for their eyes, hands, lungs as well as ears. With all this PPE to wear, the hearing protection sometimes gets left out. This is because if an employee gets something in their eyes or cuts their hand they know instantly but, with noise, the damage is not immediately apparent so may be disregarded. Sadly, by the time hearing damage is noticeable, it is irreversible.”


Loud noises can also mask safety warnings and can cause fatigue and loss of concentration, which leads to accidents, he added.

When purchasing PPE for hearing, it is critical to select equipment that offers the correct level of protection for the task at hand, noted Thompson. And, while he finds that protecting employees from noise is often an afterthought, he has also found instances in which workers were overprotected.

“I sometimes find in the food industry that employers, knowing they have to protect their workers from loud noises, go out and buy the highest level attenuating product available,”​ said Thompson. “But this actually leads to overprotection, which may also bring problems. Removing too much noise can result in people being isolated from what is taking place around them.

“When workers are fitted with the right level of protection they can hear things they didn't hear previously. It is imperative for health and safety reasons that workers can hear alarms and people calling them.”

Related topics Hygiene, safety & cleaning

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