There are not many activities in a Church or Place of Worship that would usually be considered as 'noisy' to the average person. It is not just maintenance staff using loud equipment that need to worry, however, people that play organs and other musical instruments, bell ringers and people using headphones on sound systems could be at risk from hearing loss if care is not taken.
The term 'noise' here included any noise or sound, whether it is wanted or not. (The usual definition of noise is 'unwanted sound').
Sound and noise levels are measured in decibels, often written as dB, and can be measured using a sound level meter. These are gauges that have a built-in microphone to sense the sound and a display to show how loud the sound is. Some include useful peak-hold functions and data-logging (to record the sound levels over a period of time).
All damage to hearing is preventable and it is important to protect people's hearing. The majority of damage occurs over time. The risks are controllable, not just through using earplugs or other protective equipment – try to lower the noise at the source first.
A sign that there is too much noise is that you need to shout to be heard. If you have difficulty having a conversation with someone that is just 2 metres away, you are likely to have a noise problem. People might suffer temporary hearing loss, and this clears up in a few hours. More serious are the cases when people complain of a constant whistling, ringing or buzzing in the ears and serious hearing loss which does not come back.
There are a number of action levels set for a 'daily personal noise exposure' and peak levels at which action needs to be take to reduce noise or provide hearing protection:
- 80dB(A) daily personal noise exposure / 135dB(C) peak level.
A Risk Assessment is needed and hearing protection provided to personnel if they ask.
- 85dB(A) daily personal noise exposure / 137 dB(C) peak level.
Again, a Risk Assessment is needed. Hearing protection equipment must be provided and used by personnel. The area should be marked by warning signs. There should be measures taken to limit or reduce the noise produced.
- 87dB(A) daily personal noise exposure / 140dB(C) peak level.
These are the absolute maximum volume levels permitted for staff.
For comparison, a loud radio is about 65-75dB(A), a domestic smoke alarm is about 85-95dB(A) and a heavy lorry about 7 metres away is 95-100dB(A).
dB(A) is used as a scale (weighting) for most normal sounds, while dB(C) is used as a scale (weighting) for most impulse noises, such as the operation of a nail-gun. These impulsive noises have different exposure limits.
The daily personal noise exposure level relates to the amount of noise that someone is subjected to over an 8-hour period. For short amounts of time, the permitted maximum sound level is likely to be higher, providing it is within the peak level. A competent person should assess if the daily personal noise exposure level is above the action levels because this is quite a complex assessment.
Firstly, try to reduce the amount of noise rather than using hearing defenders. Lower the volume of sound systems (especially when playing loud live music, such as from a worship band) and reduce vibration from equipment as this can also cause noise. Sometimes, insulation can be applied around noisy equipment or the noisy equipment moved away from people.
Any equipment provided for personnel, such as ear defenders, need to be suitable for the task. It is essential that this equipment is maintained. People need to be informed about the noise they are exposed to and training on the use of protective equipment might be needed, in fact the views of volunteers and employees is best sought when selecting any protective equipment as it would then be more likely to be used (not just seen as something imposed on them).
Personal Protective Equipment should always be considered as a last resort, and is sometimes needed in addition to other noise control methods where noise levels cannot be reduced below the acceptable limits.
Sources of noise
Sound systems are fitted in many Churches and Places of Worship. Special 'limiters' are available that connect to sound systems to limit the output volume. Two methods are currently in use: one has a device that lowers the volume of the system automatically if it gets too loud, the second gives an amber light warning when the limit is being approached and will cut the power if it is exceeded. It would be typical to monitor the sound levels when loud music is being played using a sound level meter, but this is only encountered in some larger Places of Worship and special events.
Similarly, when headphones are in use, it is advisable to ensure that there is a limiting device fitted to the headphones or there is some method in use to keep the volume down. People who use headphones are at specific risk because there is a tendency to turn up the volume louder than if loudspeakers were being used, especially when using the small in-ear headphones.
Some pieces of maintenance equipment, such as drills and nail guns, can generate high noise levels. The typical precautions would be to use hearing protection. With this kind of equipment, follow the manufacturer's guidance on any special precautions needed. It is sometimes possible to buy equipment that is less noisy and this should be considered if equipment is being replaced.
Those parts of a Church or Place of Worship that house bells or similar equipment should be securely locked shut and only be opened to allow authorised personnel access for maintenance and similar duties. A warning sigh should be easily visible to warn people of the noise hazard, and that hearing protection might be needed, and this sign might show ringing times when people are prohibited access.
Organists, and other musicians, could be at risk from the affects of hearing loss. For many organists, the exposure to the sound might not be above the limits because of the amount of time that they play the instrument. If this is not the case, ensure suitable breaks from organs and other sound-producing equipment.
Musicians, including bell-ringers, need to be able to hear clearly the music that is being produced. One objection to standard earplugs is that they muffle the sound too much and the music being played looses its definition and clarity. Special earplugs are available that are made to fit the individual musician to provide both protection from hearing loss and maintain the perceived quality of music.