Acoustic shock

What is acoustic shock

The basic cause is a sudden, unexpected noise, often delivered at a very intense frequency. Call Centre operatives are subject to this noise from a variety of sources. The telephone equipment used in call centres produces electrical feedback, latent sonic energy spikes, together with faulty telephone lines, non compliant switchboards, turrets and headsets.

The HSE have also made reference to other sources of acoustic damage as caller abuse (shouting, screaming, blowing whistles etc), background interference at the caller's location or ambient noise in the operator's location.

Is it serious?

It is a very serious issue, as symptoms not only vary from temporary impairment to permanent deafness and physical damage, but also, whilst these effects are often instantaneous, long term disabilities may take some time to surface.

But surely Noise Limiters in headset systems will protect Call Handlers

That was the initial thoughts but information and research from around the world, particularly from Australia and Denmark, have suggested that these limiters may not actually prevent all instances of acoustic shock damage. 

Reasons for this are still being investigated, but factors being looked at include: whether high intensity, high frequency sounds could cause hearing damage at levels of exposure below current standards and therefore are levels allowed through by current noise limiters, whether the sudden onset of these noises might bypass or undermine the effectiveness of current limiter technology and questions about individual susceptibility.

What is the legal position?

Every employer must comply with; The Health & Safety at Work Act, The Noise at Work Regulations, and the Health & Safety Executive guidelines. 

Hazards and risks must be controlled 'so far as is reasonably practicable' - this means firstly that technology must be capable of protecting against the risk and secondly that the costs, in terms of time, trouble and money, must be balanced against the level of risk reduction.

Current actions

This potential hazard for call centre workers, and others using headsets, has sparked international interest.  Within the UK, an organisation has been established, called the Acoustic Safety Programme.  This is a tripartite initiative, bringing together interested parties from Government, such as the Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Department (formerly DTI), employer interests through such bodies as the Call Centre Management Forum and trade unions.  

PCS has now signed up as a supporter of their 'We care about Hearing' campaign group as part of the Acoustic Safety Programme, through which we can help fund much needed research into these issues and also be among the first to receive the findings of that research.

HSE continue to monitor developments in this area, including recorded incidents of acoustic shock injuries reported through RIDDOR.

What should employers be doing

HSE have outlined the actions that they expect employers to take to manage the risks associated with acoustic shock:

  1. Employers need to ensure that their technology reflects latest industry standards, such as ensuring adequate noise limiters are integrated into call handling systems, either in headsets or elsewhere in the equipment;
  2. Employers also should have systems in place to make certain that they are receiving up-to-date information on acoustic shock and that those conducting risk assessments for noise risks are competent to advise on this aspect of the risk assessment - so suitable training is required;
  3. Recording and reporting Acoustic Shock incidents is vital - employers need to have a reporting system that employees are aware of, to ensure that the following information is recorded:
  • Date and time of the incident;
  • Details of the source of the exposure;
  • Description of the noise;
  • Duration of the exposure;
  • Details of the headset and telephone equipment used;
  • Whether the incident was electronically recorded (a copy should be kept for future reference);
  • Symptoms experienced by the operator directly related to the acoustic shock incident.
  1. Call handlers need to be trained to recognise acoustic shock incidents and to know how they should be reported.

Union actions

  • Ensure that equipment meets current industry standards for noise limitation.
  • Check that necessary risk assessments have been produced, regarding risks related to noise, in accordance with Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005.
  • Make certain that employer systems are in place to monitor developments in legal and technical issues relating to acoustic shock.
  • Audit employer reporting systems for incidents - do they match the HSE recommendations? Have employees been made aware of the system for reports - what to report and how? 
  • Alert members to the risks and the actions that PCS are taking to safeguard their interests.

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