We are all too aware of the immediate risks to workers' safety posed by forestry machinery but it's important to keep in mind that there can be longer term impacts too. Here we answer questions in relation to noise and vibration and the steps you can take to protect workers.

My employees use machinery– should I be doing anything about long term health & safety risks?

Yes, aside from the immediate dangers arising from the use of machinery, prolonged exposure to the noise and vibration produced by equipment can cause disease or physical impairment.

Vibration from hand-held tools, such as hedge trimmers, or chainsaws, can cause damage to workers' hands and fingers known as HAVS (hand and arm vibration syndrome). Your employees may also be at risk from back and muscle pain caused by whole body vibration from certain types of vehicles – for example tractors with mulchers fitted or log loaders.

Equipment can also emit noise, and excessive noise exposure can result in tinnitus, hearing impairment or hearing loss.

How do I know if my employees are at risk?

The law imposes limits on the amount of noise and vibration to which you can expose your employees. Those limits are found in the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 and the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005. For vibration there is a lower level of 2.5 m/s2 A(8) where action should be taken to avoid exposure; and a higher value of 5.0 m/s2 A(8) which should not be exceeded, there are separate action and higher levels for full body vibration. The limits for noise are daily exposure of 87 dB(A); and a peak sound pressure of 140dB(C).

In order to work out whether you are exposing your employees to excessive noise or vibration you will need to identify the equipment used by each employee, how long they use it for and with what frequency. This might involve careful consideration of work patterns across weeks or even the whole year. You then need to confirm the levels of noise and vibration emitted by the equipment – this should be readily available from the manufacturer.

How do I reduce my employees' exposure to sound and vibration?

To protect against noise, you should provide appropriate hearing protection to your employees; it is essential that you also train them how to properly use the protection and of the risks of not doing so. There should be procedures in place to check for compliance and to impose sanction if the protection is not used.

Where hearing protection cannot be used or does not adequately reduce the noise exposure, you will need to reduce the time each worker spends on that equipment, and you may need to implement job rotation.

To control exposure to vibration it is important to plan and record the time spent on equipment, this will allow employers to ensure the exposure limits for each worker are not breached. There are mechanised options available which will record individual employees' vibration exposure or alternatively the vibration emitted during each use of the equipment.

You will need to prepare plans at an organisational level so that workers know what they are expected to do and so that you avoid workers inadvertently being exposed to excessive levels of noise or vibration.

Is there anything else I should do to protect my employees?

You should have a robust programme of health surveillance which will involve initial health assessments to establish a baseline for employees and thereafter regular checks. Health surveillance should be carried out by a qualified occupational health professional.

You should also encourage employees to self-report hearing issues, and musculoskeletal symptoms as early as possible, and you should monitor sickness or absence reports and refer any suspected cases to a health professional.

You should have a clear plan for employees who display symptoms of noise induced hearing loss, HAVs or other vibration related conditions. This may involve more frequent checks, job rotation or, in some cases, finding an alternative role for the employee.

Is this likely to be impossible to achieve in practice?

With care and management, the risks posed by noise and vibration can be readily managed and it should be possible to continue working with tools and vehicles while avoiding any harm to workers.

This article first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Forestry and Timber News.


Kate Donachie

Legal Director