Pump up the volume

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Courtesy of Casella

On April 6 the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 will come into effect for any licensed premises or venue offering amplified music entertainment. Tim Turney, Product Manager with Casella CEL which manufactures noise measuring and dose meter technology takes a quiet look at the noisiest industry in town.

When the smoking ban came into effect last June many clubs and pubs held a ‘farewell to smoking’ evening to mark the cigarette’s last gasp. When the new Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 come into force on April 6 they may not receive the same noisy fanfare as the smoking ban, but their impact on many licensed premises could be just as great.

Designed to protect staff from hearing damage in noisy working environments, the legislation came into effect in 2006 for everyone but the music and entertainment business, which was given an additional two years before enforcement to meet the challenge. How can pubs, clubs, hotels and even the big rock concert venues keep the noise exposure of their staff to within the new legal limits without cranking down the volume for their patrons?

Hotels, clubs and venues which host occasional functions with discos and live bands may have the most difficulty gauging and managing staff exposure levels. Whilst their clients, the event organisers, may be responsible for the event going well and everyone having a good time, they are not responsible for the venue’s compliance with health and safety legislation nor the safety of its workers.
Noise is measured in decibels (dB) and an ‘A-weighting,’ sometimes written as ‘dB(A)’, is used to measure average noise levels; a ‘C-weighting’ or ‘dB(C)’ is used to measure peak, impact or explosive noises. Although a person might barely notice a 3 dB increase in noise level because of the way our ears work a 3 dB change doubles the sound energy, and what
might seem like small differences in numbers can be significant. Two instruments of the same 85dB loudness when played together will produce 88dB, and a sound reduction of 3dB halves the sound pressure and its propensity to damage hearing.

The Lower Exposure Action Value (LEAV) is set by the legislation at an 8-hour average exposure level (or daily personal noise exposure level, LAEP,d) of 80 dB(A). At this level the employer has to provide information and training to staff, and make hearing protection available. The Upper Exposure Action Value (UEAV) is set at a LAEP,d of 85 dB(A), and above this the employer must measure levels precisely and take action to reduce it; if you have to shout to communicate with someone 2 metres away the probable noise level is 85dB.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) carried out a covert survey in 2004 of 15 city nightclubs across the UK and found that even in chill out areas where they were provided, the noise levels averaged 92.3dB(A), 12 decibels higher than the lower exposure action value. Levels could get as high as 110dB(A) and at this loudness staff will receive their legal daily dose of noise in a matter of seconds.

As important as loudness is the duration of exposure, and moving bars away from the source of the noise and rotating shifts to spread exposure can help. Controlling volume means keeping equipment in good working condition, making it clear who can set volume levels and training a member of staff to use a noise meter. Controlling the location of the noise means pointing the sound where you want it, such as onto the dance floor or performance area with directional speakers.

The physical separation of staff from the noisiest areas and changing the acoustic properties of the premises are more to do with the design of the premises and should be considered when refurbishment work is planned. A leading noise consultant carried out the refurbishment of two nightclubs that initially had virtually no acoustic absorption in them. The average daily personal noise exposure of the 16 staff was reduced from 90 dB(A) to 81.5 dB(A) through a review of the layout and improved acoustic design.

A sound level meter is the basic tool for an assessment, while the noise dosimeter is worn by an employee to measures their dosage during the course of his or her working shift. The preferred tool for noise surveys is the sound level meter because the operator is present to ensure that good quality measurements which can be repeated in subsequent tests are taken. A representative measurement is made with a sound level meter for each task and the exposure time recorded, and the 8 hour exposure can be calculated from this.

The more complex the work pattern of an employee carrying out different tasks in different locations, the more difficult it is to calculate the dose using sound level meter readings. In this case a noise dosimeter such as the CEL-350 dBadge (pictured) is the best equipment for the assessment. The CEL-350 incorporates an exposure alarm that uses an ultra-bright LED to give an early visual indication if an individual will exceed the action values based on the current noise exposure.

Once it is established that there is a problem, personal hearing protection should be considered only as a last resort when all other methods of control have been explored. However, it must be used as an interim measure before other more permanent technical, engineering or organisational solutions come into effect if noise levels are likely to be at the Upper Exposure Action Values.

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 only require hearing protection to be worn by workers when, despite other controls in place, their average daily or weekly exposure is at or above the set threshold. When it is mandatory there are many discreet hearing protection options, including in-ear monitors, flat response earplugs specially designed for musicians or normal earplugs for those who do not need to hear the music. Headsets have their place too, and in security they can usefully combine communications capability with noise reduction.

When the smokers and ashtrays moved outside, compliance with the smoking ban was complete; the licensees had met their obligation and the law was unequivocal. But with the Noise at Work Regulations, measuring levels of exposure by staff who may be carrying out many different tasks in many different areas will be challenging, and it will take much more than the whiff of tobacco smoke to indicate a problem with compliance.

Like the smoking ban, the noise regulations are designed to protect staff who work in potentially damaging environments rather than to erode the freedom of customers. Striking the balance has been a challenging task, and the Music and Entertainment Sector Working Group which consulted on the legislation offers specific advice for all venues offering any kind of amplified music or entertainment. Casella which is the leading name in environmental monitoring technologies can help with the equipment needed to assess the problem.

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