Noise in the Workplace
Tree surgeons are exposed to high noise and vibration levels at work, which can be harmful if not managed correctly. This a consequence of the equipment we use daily (i.e., chainsaws and chippers), which generate intrusive noise and vibration. Chainsaws rank high on a decibel scale (reaching up to 100-110 decibels), exceeding the recommended limit stated by the Control of Noise at Work Regulations, which recommend an exposure limit of 87 decibels.
Hearing loss at work is preventable but is irreversible once it happens. It is essential that as tree surgeons (whether we are independent, own our own business or operate under someone else), we make ourselves aware of the possible damage which can be caused while we carry out our daily jobs. Managing exposure to noise and vibration is a key component of creating a safe working environment.
What are the symptoms/early signs of hearing loss?
Unfortunately, by the time you realise that you are losing your hearing, it is probably too late. This is because the effects are gradual and happen over a sustained period, and you will naturally make subconscious changes to the way you go about your day to compensate for these gradual changes. However, if you familiarise yourself with these symptoms, then you will also be able to help those around you:
- You begin having trouble hearing people over the phone.
- People begin to pick you up on having the volume up too loud when you are watching or listening to things.
- You find it difficult to catch certain sounds such as ‘t’, ‘d’ and ‘s.’
- You start to rely on reading people’s lips when they are talking to you.
- You have a permanent ringing, whistling or buzzing in your ear (tinnitus).
Are there any regulations?
Yes! Noise at work comes under the ‘Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005’ which you can find here. These amended regulations aim to ensure that all workers, whether they are in the Arb industry or not, have their hearing protected from excessive noise within the workplace.
Under these regulations, your employer (if you have one) should provide you with hearing protection when the noise you are exposed to reaches 85 decibels. They should also assess both you and the working environment if decibels measure anything over 80. Measurement of noise levels can be achieved using a piece of equipment known as a dosimeter, and even the cheap ones are still effective.
What should I do/know as an employee?
If you are a tree surgeon, it is inevitable that you will experience loud noises when attending jobs; it is a given in this industry. However, if you are a tree surgeon and have an employer, there are certain aspects of Noise at Work that you should be aware of that work alongside your employee responsibilities.
As an employee, you are expected to inform your employer if you feel like you need to protect your hearing. You are also responsible for following any workplace practices that have been put in place to help protect your hearing. For example, if you are given earmuffs to protect yourself from the noise of a chainsaw and other equipment, then it is your responsibility to wear it and wear it properly. You are also responsible for the maintenance of your ear protection equipment, after receiving training on how to look after it from your employer. You should also report any problems that you may find with your hearing protection immediately.
If you are concerned, then there are typically two people that you can turn to; your employer (as it is their legal responsibility to protect you and to be reducing the risk of hearing loss in the industry) or your safety or employee representatives (usually appointed by your trade union). Safety and Employee representatives can help both you (in terms of communicating with your employer) and your employer (in terms of advising them on what they can do).
I'm an employer; what should I be doing?
If you are a tree surgery manager, when it comes to Noise in the Workplace, there are specific regulations that you must adhere to.
Firstly, you should familiarise yourself with the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, as by law, you are required to assess and identify the amount of noise your tree surgeons are exposed to. In turn, if they are at risk, you must try to eliminate or reduce the exposure that they have. This can be done on a small-large scale.
Typical actions that you can take can include making sure you select the quietest equipment, limiting the time your tree surgeons are exposed to loud noises (where possible) or providing them with suitable, CE marked hearing protection. If you cannot limit the noise exposure time of your tree surgeons, then you should ensure that the legal limits are not exceeded in addition to making sure that they have sufficient information and instruction surrounding the topic.
For example, earmuffs must cover ears and fit tightly with no gaps around their seals. They must also be CE marked and compatible with your safety helmets. You should encourage your tree surgeons to maintain them properly, including making sure they store them correctly to prevent damage. They are responsible for coming to you when there are issues with their safety equipment.
You are responsible for informing your tree surgeons and explaining the risks that they may be exposed to. This includes:
- Informing them how you are controlling risks and exposure.
- Showing them how and where they can find hearing protection.
- How they should inform you if there are any defects in their hearing protection.
- What their responsibilities are under the Noise Regulations.
- How they should adequately use their hearing protection.
- Your health surveillance systems (if you have any).
As mentioned above, you should also carry out regular health surveillances. You should also conduct these surrounding vibration in the workplace, which we will touch on later.
A health surveillance should be conducted of your tree surgeons if their health is considered at risk and is typically constructed in the form of a questionnaire. They are aimed at identifying when employees may be suffering from early signs of hearing loss, giving you a chance to prevent it from worsening and to help you to determine whether steps that you have implemented are working. ‘Health surveillance’ can sound quite intimidating to your tree surgeons so you should always make sure to explain the process to them and that it is merely to identify if they have any signs of hearing loss. This then helps to prevent further hearing damage from happening as well as inducing further actions to avoid situations from occurring.
Health surveillances are advised to be carried out by an external contractor (i.e., a GP) and should be carried out regularly. They include regular hearing checks in controlled conditions. Your tree surgeons should report to you the results of their hearing checks so that you can keep records of these health surveillances (however you should not keep records of confidential medical records).
Ideally, when it comes to hearing health surveillances, you should conduct them as soon as a new tree surgeon starts working for you. This is so that you can have a ‘baseline’ before they are exposed to noise in your workplace, to which future surveillances can be measured such that early signs of hearing loss can be detected.
Vibration in the Workplace
As with noise, as tree surgeons, we are often exposed to significant levels of vibration. This is due to the equipment that we use on jobs daily. Unfortunately, high strength vibrations can lead to the development of HAVS and/or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
HAVS and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
HAVS stands for Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome. It is a harrowing and potentially disabling condition that affects fingers, hands and arms due to vibration typically from hand-held power tools i.e., hedge trimmers and chainsaws.
Typical symptoms of the syndrome are:
- Tingling sensation in your fingers along with possible numbness.
- In the cold, fingers become white and swollen when cold and then red and painful once they warm up.
- Beginning to find it difficult to pick up small things (loss of strength in your fingers).
- Losing feeling in your fingers.
HAVS is preventable; however, once the damage of vibration exposure has happened, then it is irreversible. It also costs both tree surgeons and their employers, so it is in both parties’ interests that the risk of HAVS (and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) is reduced.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: A medical condition that affects hands and fingers and is caused by repetitive movements or fluid retention over time, which leads to pressure on a nerve in the wrist. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome can result from regular vibration at work. It is also known to interfere with work on a day-to-day basis and in some cases may affect the ability of a tree surgeon to carry out their jobs safely.
Typical Symptoms of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome are:
- Tingling, numbness, pain, and weakness in the hand.
- A weak thumb or difficulty gripping objects.
Are there any regulations?
Yes! The ‘Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005’ which you can view here. This legislation aims to protect workers from risks to health at work caused by vibration. It introduced ‘action’ and ‘limit’ values for hand-arm and whole-body vibrations.
— Exposure Action Value (EAV) is 2.5m/s² A8. This is the daily level at which your employer should introduce measures to reduce your exposure.
— Exposure Limit Value (ELV) is 5.0 m/s² A8. This is the maximum amount of vibration that you should be exposed to per day.
What should I do as an Employer?
If you operate a Tree Surgery business, there a few things you should know in regard to Vibration at Work and the regulations which surround it.
The regulations, as highlighted in the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations, require employers to do certain things:
They require you to:
- Control the risks that may occur; look for alternative working methods (i.e., – Work schedules that limit your tree surgeon’s work using equipment that strongly vibrates to make sure they aren’t exposed for continuous periods of time); look for different equipment (choose suitable equipment for the jobs you conduct so that your tree surgeons can carry out work as efficiently as possible, reducing their exposure to vibration); provide appropriate PPE (keeps your workers warm and dry which encourages good blood circulation, preventing HAVS to some extent); keep up to date with what is considered to be ‘good practice’ in the Arb industry.
- Provide information, instruction and training to your tree surgeons who may be at risk and the actions that you are taking to control them (legally they should be made aware of HAV at work, their risk level and how to recognise or report symptoms).
- Provide Health Surveillance (similarly to Noise at Work, it is also encouraged that you conduct Health Surveillances to your tree surgeons who have a medium to high risk of exposure. They help to identify who is more at risk (e.g., smokers or people with blood circulatory diseases), how to prevent disease progression and help people to stay in work. If you conduct health surveillances (typically in the form of a questionnaire and can be done by either yourself or a GP), you must keep records of them. If it is apparent that one of your workers has HAVS or has developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (which has been clarified in writing by a doctor), you must contact the enforcement authorities to comply with RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Disease and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995).
This means, therefore, that you need to assess the vibration risk that could affect your tree surgeons and need to ensure that legal limits are not exceeded. In the case that vibration risk is high, you should take action to reduce this.
Additionally, noise and vibration should both be included in your risk assessments. After health surveillances, you can then use the information gathered to review and revise your risk assessment. Health and Safety inspectors may request to see both your risk assessment and health surveillances, so it is important that you keep these records.
What can I do as an employee?
If you work under a tree surgeon, then they should have informed you on your risk to vibration exposure, and it is essential that you also familiarise yourself with the regulation.
You can also:
- Request to use low vibration tools (where possible and within reason).
- Make sure to use the appropriate equipment for each job. This not only makes you finish the job quicker (bonus for us all) but also limits the exposure time that you have to the vibrations that are emitted.
- Regularly check pieces of equipment (e.g., chainsaws) as well as your PPE for any wear and tear, which can cause extra vibration to occur.
- Try to do other jobs between using the equipment. This makes things a little bit more interesting for you and helps to reduce the amount of exposure that you have at one time.
- Store provided equipment properly. This helps to prevent equipment from wear and tear but also protects the handles from getting cold, which in turn prevents your hands from getting cold.
- Encourage good blood circulation by keeping warm and dry and keeping your fingers moving between jobs.
As a tree surgeon who works under somebody, your employer does have a duty to protect you and should have already made you aware of the level of vibration that you are exposed to on a day-to-day basis. You can also always consult your Safety or Employee Representative (typically part of your trade union) as they can help you communicate your problems and can work well with your employer in terms of consulting them with regulations.
Noise and vibration are inevitable risks when working as a tree surgeon. Following the advice above should enable both employers and employees to best manage these risks and ensure a safe working environment.
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