High noise for company drivers

This is an area which I have avoided tackling head-on in the past and generally turned a blind eye to it as it is an area packed with uncertainty and potentially large issues to sort out, but nevertheless it is an interesting question - how do the Noise Regulations apply to people driving a vehicle on company business? This would cover the obvious such as truck or van drivers, but also motorcycle couriers, anyone driving a company car on a work-related journey, or indeed anyone driving their own car on a work-related journey. 

Are they 'at work'?

The Noise Regs apply to people who are classed as being 'at work', so the first question which needs to be considered is whether the people involved are actually 'at work' or not.

If they are driving to or from their normal place of work, then no, they are not at work. That's easy.

As a guide to if they are at work though, do they meet any one of these:

  • They can make a mileage claim for the journey.
  • They are driving to a place of work which is not their usual place.
  • They are making deliveries or transporting goods.
  • They are driving between places of work.
    Their journey forms part of their working hours.
  • They are on some kind of errand for the company or going to a meeting elsewhere than their normal place of work.

In all these cases, the driver is more than likely 'at work'. If they had an accident the HSE would probably class it as a work related accident and may investigate it as such. If the vehicle was faulty or the driver made to work too many hours by their employer, the company could face prosecution. So in these cases, the Noise Regs must apply as there is no exemption for driving.

Cirrus Dosebadge noise meter

Measuring the problem

To get an idea of the scale of the issue and to see if noise is indeed a problem in this situation I attached a noise meter in the form of a Cirrus Dosebadge to the passenger seatbelt where it would be free of any interference, with the seatbelt fastened into place across the seat. The stereo was deliberately on very quietly playing Radio 4 at a volume just loud enough to make out the speech over the wind, engine and tyre noise and if I'm honest, far quieter than it would be normally. The car was then driven for a couple of hours up the M5 and M6 to Manchester with the dosebadge sitting there taking a measurement for the entire journey. The car itself was a two year old Santa Fe Premium so pretty much spot-on a mid-range mid-price car.

Noise measurement result

The result was interesting, coming in at 87dB(A), especially when in reality the noise would in all likelihood be higher as the stereo was very much at an artificially low setting. 

This opens the door to a whole can of worms. If a decent newish car bring driven sensibly and even artificially quietly is coming in at 87dB(A), then it is eminently reasonable to expect most cars and especially vans to be at this level and higher. Assuming even only a 1dB increase in noise then that means four hours of exposure will bring the occupant to their daily limit, the point at which hearing protection then is required. Motorbike couriers will hit this even faster, within an hour if my own experience on a motorbike is anything to go by, with van drivers not far behind.

This means there is a huge pool of potentially millions of people out there who are exceeding the 85dB(A) limit while at work, but for whom there is, naturally, no pressure to wear hearing protection or take steps to reduce the noise again. How many companies look at in-cab noise when purchasing cars or vans? How many company specify cars and vans with no stereo when buying them for company personnel or use? Of course none do. How many even measure the noise in the cars being driven on company business, especially when this may include a myriad of private vehicles as well as company ones?

What to do about it?

This is the tricky part - we know there are a lot of people out there getting exposed at work to noise levels which if in a static workplace would require the use of hearing protection, inclusion in an audiometry programme, inclusion in noise awareness training programmes, and the company to look at ways of reducing the noise. 

If someone turned round and said they had a measured noise induced hearing loss and had been driving a lot on company business I can see no reason why that claim would not succeed.

Clearly, recommending people wear hearing protection when driving on company business is nuts and a complete non-starter, as are company rules banning the use of a stereo while driving which will push them over the 85dB(A) limit. There are some steps I would recommend an employer take though:

  1. When purchasing fleet vehicles have in-cab noise as one of the selection criteria which is at least looked at and considered in the purchasing process.
     
  2. Include people who drive a lot on company business in the noise awareness training programme as this includes identifying signs of ongoing noise induced hearing loss. This includes people who drive their own car or motorbike on company business as well as those in vehicles provided by work. This does not include people who only drive to and from their normal place of work.
     
  3. Include the same people who drive a lot on company business in the company hearing screening (audiometry) programme so any developing losses can be identified early.

The HSE and this issue

I think I can best sum up the HSE's stance on this so far as 'shhhh, for God's sake don't mention it as we don't want to get involved as it is going to be a total nightmare'. 

In April 2017 I emailed the HSE and got a very non-committal reply back which completely avoided the basic question being asked of 'what is your stance on this and how do you manage it in your own employees'. So I wrote to them again, a proper old fashioned letter, and a month later have still to receive a reply. Should I ever receive one I will add it here.

Civil claims and this issue

The HSE may be reticent to dive into this murky water, but you can bet anything you like that sooner or later someone is going to put a claim in against their employer for this, if they haven't already. If they have measured hearing loss and the employer has done nothing about it, then it is a reasonable argument that their hearing loss has been at least partly caused by their noise exposures when driving, and to me that meets the standard of 'on the balance of probabilities' upon which claims are decided. For me, therefore, employers should be taking steps to address this if only to prevent potential hearing loss in employees and to minimise their risk of a successful compensation claim, at least by following the advice in the 'what to do about it' section above.