Tinnitus: What employers need to Know
By: Melanie Burden (Head of General Personal Injury), Claire Roantree (Head of Serious Personal Injury) and Rebecca Ryan (Solicitor Industrial Disease)
March 1 2016 - Tinnitus is a debilitating condition, and can be caused by exposure to loud or prolonged noise in the workplace, or a head or neck injury. Following UK Tinnitus Awareness Week, experts from Simpson Millar Solicitors provide guidance for employers on what tinnitus is and how it can be caused, and their legal obligations regarding the health and safety of their employees.
What is Tinnitus?
- It derives from the Latin word for "ringing", and is used to describe the condition where the sufferer experiences a noise in the head or ears, even though no external noise is present.
- It can be heard in one ear or both, or in the middle of the head.
- The noise varies between sufferers; it can be of varying pitches, and is often described as "buzzing", "whistling", "hissing", "swooshing" or "clinking".
- It can be temporary, it can come and go, or it can - sadly for some sufferers - be constant and permanent.
- It can have a profound effect on sufferers' day-to-day living, causing insomnia, anxiety and even depression.
How can it occur in the workplace?
Tinnitus can be due to one or more of several causes, but there are some that are more likely to occur in the workplace.
It may develop following an accident at work that involves a blow to the head or neck. Hazardous professions in which workers are at risk of exposure to head injuries include:
- construction workers (builders, scaffolders, carpenters, electricians, engineering, steel works etc.);
- farming workers;
- postal workers/sorting office staff;
- warehouse employees; and
- delivery drivers.
Tinnitus can also arise following exposure to a very loud one-off noise, or prolonged exposure to high levels of noise. Staff at high risk of exposure to excessive noise include:
- airport ground staff;
- construction and manufacturing employees;
- nightclub staff;
- military personnel;
- nursery workers;
- farming and agriculture employees; and
- call-centre staff.
What is the relevant law for employers?
For those jobs which expose workers to a risk of head injury:
The Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992 require employers in the construction industry to ensure that all workers are provided with suitable head protection, where there is a risk of head injury; in practical terms, this applies to almost all situations on a construction site. This is to prevent or minimise the risk of head injury:
- Hard hats should be inspected and regularly maintained.
- They should be in good condition; if they are damaged, they must be thrown away and replaced.
- The style/design of the hard hat should not prevent a worker from wearing hearing protectors if they are needed.
- Employers should ensure all workers wear hard hats at all times on site.
For those jobs which expose workers to high noise levels:
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 require employers to reduce noise exposure for workers as follows:
- If there is a daily or weekly average noise-exposure level of 80dB(A) (decibels), the employer must provide information and training, and make available hearing protection.
- If the daily or weekly average noise reaches 85dB(A), the employer must take reasonably practicable measures to reduce noise exposure, and the use of hearing protection is mandatory if the noise cannot be controlled, or while steps are being taken to reduce the noise levels.
- The exposure limit is 87dB; no worker must be exposed to noise above this level.
- If the average noise level reaches 85dB(A) or above, employers must identify hearing protection zones; these are areas, marked by warning signs, where the use of hearing protection is compulsory.
- Employers must ensure that hearing protectors are regularly inspected and maintained, and that all employees are fully trained on their use and care.
- Employees must also be put under suitable health surveillance to include hearing tests and given sufficient information and training on the risks from exposure to noise
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers must have regard to the safety of other members of the public, in addition to workers, who might be exposed to excessive noise. Section 29 of the Factories Act 1961, also imposes a duty on the employer to make and keep safe the employees place of work.
How can employers avoid problems?
Prevention is the best policy, by employers being rigorous in the use and enforcement of health and safety in the workplace to assess and control risks. Many of the rules and recommendations are common sense, and ought to be included already as part of the employer's responsibility under the legislation referred to above.
- Ensure all risk assessment are regularly reviewed and updated for exposure to high noise levels and risk of exposure to head injuries.
- Factor-in the risk of all situations that might expose a worker to a head injury. Look what can be done to avoid that risk or reduce it to the lowest possible level. Ensure suitable head protection is available where this risk is identified, and that workers are trained in the correct use of the head protection; and that this is regularly maintained, inspected, and replaced when damaged or worn.
- Factor in the risk of the level, type and duration of noise exposure, and the effect this may have on employees. Also consider any equipment available to control or reduce the levels of noise, and the hearing protection most suitable to the work type.
- Reinforce the risk assessments/safety measures as part of the tool-box talks for employees on construction sites.
- Where protective equipment is available, such as head protection and hearing protection, ensure employees are provided with them and that they are used.
There is no substitute for reading the full body of the relevant legislation; this is readily accessible and downloadable on the HSE website. The HSE also provides excellent guides with preventative advice for employers, including:
- HSE - Noise - Advice for employers.
- HSE - Noise - How do I reduce noise?
- HSE - Noise - How can I choose quieter equipment and machinery?
- HSE - Noise good practice - Concrete and cement production.
- HSE - Hard hats - What you need to know as a busy builder.
What should employees with symptoms do?
- Get checked out at A&E as soon as possible.
- Consult a GP, so that any underlying causes can be identified or ruled out, and any suitable treatment recommended.
- If a cause cannot be identified, although there is not yet a cure, there are several available treatments to help sufferers manage and cope on a day-to-day basis.
- These include CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy); counselling; sound therapy; and tinnitus retraining therapy.
What should an employer do if an employee reports they are suffering from tinnitus?
- If an employee reports tinnitus as a result of a head injury, you must complete an accident report form, and a RIDDOR report form, to report the accident to the HSE.
- The employer will need to ensure that hearing protection being worn is complaint with the relevant requirements; and check the employee has had relevant training and instruction, and refer him or her for further health surveillance testing.
- Employers must conduct a re-risk assessment to assess the safety of the employee in the workplace as a result of their injury or tinnitus condition (once diagnosed).
For more guidance on tinnitus that arises from the workplace, see Simpson Millar Solicitors' page with background information.