How do recent changes in the European Union Noise Directive affect workers, and what must employers do to implement it?
After nearly twenty years since the original threshold values were defined, the European Parliament adopted Directive 2003/10/EC, which establishes new values for allowable noise exposures. These new threshold values are lower (more protective) than the previous values. In addition, a new exposure limit of 87 dBA is defined as the maximum allowable daily noise exposure level in the worker’s ear with all protective measures in place (including hearing protectors). The measures of the new Directive take effect in EU member states in 2006.
Table 1. Comparison of Old EU Directive (86/188/EEC) to New (2003/10/EC)
Table 1 compares the new Directive to the old requirements. The biggest change is the lowering of Action Levels by 5 dB. Precautionary measures, such as making hearing protectors available, must now be initiated when noise levels exceed 80 dBA (the previous level was 85 dBA). Protective measures, like enforcing the use of hearing protectors, must now be initiated when noise levels exceed 85 dBA (previously 90 dBA).
Although a change from85 to 80 decibels seems quite minor, the difference is significant and noticeable. Because decibels are on a logarithmic scale, small changes in number represent enormous changes in sound pressure levels. In this case, the difference between 80 and 85 decibels represents more than a doubling of sound energy.
In practical terms, most people must shout to be heard by a listener just one meter away in the presence of 85 dBA background noise. The new action levels now include many employees who were previously deemed to be working in “safe” noise levels without protection. To encourage these workers to protect their hearing, the following steps are advised:
In addition to defining more protective Action Levels, the new EU Directive also establishes a new exposure limit. This exposure limit – defined as 87 dBA – is the maximum allowable daily noise exposure level, taking account of attenuation provided by hearing protectors worn by a worker. This means employers must now ensure that a worker’s protected daily average noise exposure (the estimated noise level in the ear under hearing protectors) does not exceed 87 dBA. The best way to ensure that the protected exposures do not exceed 87 dBA is to select suitable hearing protectors, comparing attenuation ratings of the protectors with the noise environment in which they will be used, and then ensuring proper fitting. In most cases, this is accomplished by providing training in how hearing protectors are correctly worn.
Table 2. Action Levels and Exposure Limits – Protective Measures are Required at These Levels
Table 3. Comparison of Action Levels and Exposure Limits by Region (all noise levels based on 8-hour exposures)
It should be noted that these changes only affect EU member states. Other countries and regions have their own standards and regulations defining action levels and exposure limits for noise. But with this new change in the EU Directive, Europe has implemented the most protective noise exposure limits currently in practice, based upon the best available scientific knowledge on the risks of noise-induced hearing loss.