Noise Action Week 2016 (23-28 May)
To mark the start of Noise Action Week - co-ordinated by Environmental Protection UK - Ric Cope, principal consultant (Acoustics & Vibration Group) at Bureau Veritas, looks back at how Europe has helped to shape Health & Safety standards in the UK.
All of the current political arguments around the in/out campaigns has led many to reflect on what Brexit will mean for Britain looking ahead. To do that, it’s worth first considering how the European Union has shaped our society. If we briefly focus our thoughts on health and safety in the workplace and, in particular, reducing the risks of noise exposure, we can quickly identify the significant changes that have occurred since we joined the EEC, as it was, in 1973.
Although our membership application was rejected twice in the 1960s, we saw a rapid codification of legislation to bring our standards in line with our neighbours and new partners, both prior to and following our accession. Not least of which was the publication of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 which still defines the general duties and responsibilities that protect us to this day.
We may only speculate what might have been had the 1975 Referendum swung the other way (66% voted in favour of staying in), but subsequent EC /EU Directives, once transposed in to UK law have clearly had beneficial effects on worker wellbeing.
Whilst there may have been some initial resistance, the UK has now embraced this health and safety culture. This has been admirably supported and driven by the Health & Safety Executive in their role as educator and enforcer, which saw its own genesis in the wake of the accession (est. 1975).
Those that experienced the workplace before our accession are at, or approaching, retirement age, and the residual effects of their exposure to noise in their formative working years may not yet be fully measured and accounted for. It is hoped and expected that for most, the changes that have been brought about will have reduced the level of noise induced hearing loss that they experience in their latter years.
The UK now has the lowest workplace fatality rate in Europe, and that has fallen by around 86% since 1974 (despite the upward trend in deaths from asbestos-related diseases). Likewise, the number of new reported cases of Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) fell around 60% between 2003 and 2014 . The prevalence of cases in recent years continues to occur within the manufacturing and construction industries.
Whilst we drive the awareness of the effects of noise exposure at work, we should not forget about exposure away the workplace, and to our children. Last year, the World Health Organisation reported that more than one billion teenagers and young adults “are at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe use of personal audio devices, including smartphones, and exposure to damaging levels of sound at noisy entertainment venues such as nightclubs, bars and sporting events.” A lot of great work continues to be conducted to improve our understanding and to help promote awareness among both manufacturers and end-users, be they passive or active in their choices.
Noise Action Week provides that opportunity for us to reflect on what we considered acceptable 43 years ago, and how the mind-sets of employers, manufacturers and individuals have shifted towards a focus on the health and wellbeing of our community as a whole.
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