Do loud people at work count as 'noise'?
Here's an interesting and rather tricky question, do the Noise Regs cover people who may a little 'on the loud side' at work? I've come across two situations like this over the years:
Loud person in a noisy environment
A bakery had a mixing area with five employees in where the noise levels from the equipment were averaging 82 to 84dB(A) so above the lower limit but not reaching the magic 85dB(A) level where hearing protection would be mandatory. The problem was, this level was only achieved when one particular employee went elsewhere for a while, but whenever he was there (which he was most of the time) he spent his entire shift bellowing at the top of his voice, shouting to people, singing and generally making such a racket that when he was there the noise level were averaging 86 to 87dB(A) for an eight hour shift. Effectively, this chap alone was pushing the noise levels into an area where hearing protection was now mandatory.
Loud person in a quiet office
An otherwise quiet open plan office had one employee who insisted on shouting to people across the office or talking ridiculously loudly on the phone. The noise levels were way short of any statutory limits but this person was reported as being a noise nuisance several times during my visit there. Do the Regs cover this even though it is not 'dangerous' as such?
Loud person in a noisy environment
This one has a specific issue in that the single employee who was spending his day bellowing at everyone else was on the surface of it the difference between the noise levels staying below 85dB(A) or the noise levels exceeding them. If the 85dB(A) level is exceeded then everything kicks in including a need for everyone there to be subject to regular health screening (audiometry), noise training, mandatory provisions and use of hearing protection and importantly, the employer doing what is reasonably practicable to reduce the noise levels again, which would imply 'getting the problem person to shut up or remove them from that area'.
Part 2 of the Noise Regs (L108) helps clarify this where paragraph 136 states 'any audible sound should be considered as noise and be part of a person's noise exposure. This includes speech, music...'. The answer therefore is yes, the employer does have to get that person to shut up or move them to another area, such as one where the background noise is lower so they don't shout so loud to be heard, or put them in an area where they cannot have such an impact on other people. Or, spend a bit of money and give everyone in there radio-communication headsets so they can talk at a normal volume.
As well as the statement from L108 above, the logic behind this is that there were five employees working in this room, one of whom was the problem. This left four other people working in an area where the noise level was over 85dB(A) and irrespective of the source, noise at that level has the potential to damage hearing. As these four people don't have a choice of being in there they therefore don't have a choice about the noise exposure and would have a good chance of a claim succeeding if they were found to have suffered noise induced hearing loss in the future. If the employer tried to defend themselves with the argument that their equipment and work was not the problem, any half-decent claims handler could easily argue that the background noise caused the other employee to have to shout to be heard, that L108 specifically includes speech, and that the employer allowed that to happen so in effect consented to it.
Loud person in a quiet environment
To be clear, this situation was one very loud person in an otherwise quiet office where the background noise was low otherwise. This is a much more tricky problem as it is dependent on determining when someone is causing such a nuisance that the employer needs to step in, and what constitutes a nuisance will vary from person to person within the room and may even change depending on the task they are working on. Speaking personally, I hate being able to hear anyone talk when working on a report or something else which needs me to concentrate and I could not work in an open plan office where I could hear people on the phone or talking, no matter how quiet. However I do work with music blaring out and for many other people they may be perfectly fine with hearing conversation going on around them but the music would be a nuisance to them at work.
It is important to establish in this case that the issue is nuisance and the noise is not dangerous in terms of likely to damage the hearing of people around them. Even if the irritating person is REALLY loud and shouting at say 90dB(A) occasionally, over the course of a day in an office or other area with a really low background noise this is not going to cause a physical problem to people's hearing.
The Noise Regs don't really have much specific to say about this other than a rather vague duty about protecting employees from the dangers of excessive noise so there could be an argument made as to whether the loud person is 'excessive noise'.
This doesn't mean something shouldn't be done though as if the loud person is causing a nuisance to others to the extent that is affecting them and their work then this should be viewed as a potential stressor in the office so still needs dealing with, just outside of the Noise Regulation framework.