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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hill

The UK RIDDOR Riddle

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

Solving the RIDDOR Riddle: why is a noise-induced hearing loss not a reportable disease in the UK?


I had a ‘light bulb moment’ while working on the Minuendo stand at the SHW Live exhibition in Manchester recently; if noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the world’s most common industrial disease and prescribed under the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit Scheme (IIDB) [1] why is it not reportable under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases, and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations [2] (RIDDOR)? This article sets out to find the answer and more importantly what can be done about it.


I’ve written before that as an apprentice in a manufacturing company over 45 years ago, I was told (of the noise) “don’t worry son, you’ll get used to it”. Good news, hearing protection was readily available and I did get an audiometric test on site from the occupational nurse but the bad news, I recall seeing very expensive acoustic enclosure doors often left open on the presses and managers with their hearing protectors round their necks!



That was around 1976 and not long after the Code of Practice (CoP) for reducing the exposure of employed persons to noise (1972) was published. Nicknamed the ‘yellow peril’, the CoP introduced the concept of an 8-hour LAeq and established a 90 dB daily limit, which lagged several other European countries that already had 85dB limits in place. Anecdotally this was due to the cost burden it would have placed on British Industry to have adopted the lower limit. Cost is a recurring theme as we’ll see. And according to Hays McKenzie [3] the CoP appears to have been largely ignored by employers until the 1986 EU Noise at Work Directive resulted in the 1989 Noise at Work Regulations becoming law in the UK. I can testify to that when working as a Sales Manager for CEL Instruments, a leading UK supplier of noise measuring instrumentation (later acquired by Casella), who saw sales of its sound level meters spike over an 18-month period.


Then in 1995 reporting certain industrial diseases, including hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), became a legal requirement under RIDDOR but not NIHL, go figure? Was this down to cost, complexity, or just complacency? Well, further legislation came about due to the EU Physical Agents Directive that saw new noise and vibration control legislation in 2005 [4] and another spike in instrumentation sales.


Next came the Lofstedt report in 2011 [5] which sought to simplify the burden on the industry largely due to the cost for no apparent benefit with a subsequent revision to RIDDOR in 2013 but still no reporting for NIHL. Interestingly the insurance industry founded The Employers’ Liability Tracing Office (ELTO) also in 2011 to give potential claimants easy access to their employer’s liability insurance data. ELTO holds more than twenty-five million insurance policies spanning more than a hundred years, which is important because of the lag between exposure and diagnosis. Their 2020 annual report showed the rank of claimant searches for industrial exposure-based diseases as shown in the table and guess what, NIHL tops the list by a big margin?


In the meantime, HAVS has witnessed a surge in six-figure fines for employers who breach the vibration exposure Regulations, but no such luck for NIHL. It’s allegedly the case that Corporate employers settle deafness claims for a few thousand pounds (one assumes without admitting liability) but I’m convinced that there would be a different attitude to NIHL if it were reportable too and Industry were faced with (unlimited) fines linked to their turnover made possible under the 2016 sentencing guidelines [6].


However, deciding what is prescribed by the IIDB and reportable under RIDDOR is unfortunately not ‘cut and dried’ [7] because you can go deaf for reasons other than occupational exposure whereas HAVS (and other diseases) is more likely to only come from workplace exposure.


So, what about a further review of RIDDOR 2013? According to the HSE, it is currently undertaking a post implementation review (PIR) and it will consider diseases that are currently reportable and those which may be of interest to HSE but are not on the current list. NIHL has been included in this process and the final PIR report will be published by the 1st of October 2023. Given that the Government announced a move at the end of 2022 to exempt businesses with fewer than 500 staff to reduce reporting burden (cost) on SMEs, which IOSH is reported to be lobbying against [8], I’m not holding my breath.


All the more reason, therefore, for a renewed belt & braces approach through noise measurement, hearing protector fit testing (being championed by the UKHCA [9]) perhaps even made mandatory like that for respiratory protective equipment, automated PPE wearer compliance monitoring, and routine workplace health surveillance, through regular field audiometry.


The technology already exists to make this an affordable course of action; take Smart Alert from Minuendo, for example. Current approaches to hearing loss prevention have long been viewed as largely ineffective [10]. This is particularly true for workers in dynamic noise environments or when those workers are mobile across varying locations. Hailed as a revolution in hearing conservation, Smart Alert is a complete solution consisting of hearing protection with noise monitoring and data service that provides automatic notifications and actionable guidance on noise exposure.


The cloud-based solution offers simple dashboards for both HSE managers and users that can easily identify who is potentially being over-exposed leading to improved record-keeping and exposure history. It is secure and accessible from any device.



The earplug itself provides hearing protection with noise monitoring (in-ear) that maintains natural hear-through for situational awareness and avoids overprotection. The wearer gets real-time warnings audio and haptic feedback, reminding them to don their earplugs when necessary. They are lightweight, comfortable, and simple to use and the dock can charge up to 8 earplugs which synchronises stored data with the Cloud via Wi-Fi and data is end-to-end encrypted. It’s simply a case of 'grab & go'.


In conclusion, legislation alone can never solve the problem of NIHL, it requires buy in from employers and employees alike but any strengthening is always welcomed. It’s more a question of changing our attitudes to NIHL, changing individual behaviours, and viewing technology as an investment in workers' health and not a cost.



References

4. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations, 2005 & Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005

8. Health and Safety Matters, Issue Dec/Jan 2023, pages 8 and 30

10. Real world use and performance of hearing protection HSE research report RR720.


Neal Hill has worked in the ‘noise & vibration industry’ for over 40 years in Sales, Sales Management, Marketing & Product Management roles with leading companies including CEL Instruments, Nicolet Instruments, Racal Acoustics and Casella. Uniquely, this has spanned both noise & vibration measurement and hearing protection and certainly includes some game-changing products. This includes several worlds’ first measurement solutions in the 1980s & 90s and latterly the first Bluetooth Low Energy connected noise dosimeter with smartphone app and a military communication headset. This was described as “awesome” by front-line US troops that gained a Queens’ Award, several patents and dramatically drove Racal’s shareholder value. Neal always strives to make a difference, passionately believes in the voice of customer and that new products are created where market pull meets technology push. He’s a self-confessed jack-of-all-trades and now works as a Consultant ranging from strategy development and market sizing, to content writing and interim Product & Project Management.



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