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Sound and noise levels; laws and regulations

There are various regulations governing the levels of noise permitted in the workplace. In Europe, noise in the workplace is governed by the EU Directive 2006/42/EC, while in the United States it is regulated by OSHA standard 1910.95 Occupational Noise Exposure. OSHA is an acronym for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is the federal agency responsible for the implementation of occupational health and safety legislation in the United States. There are also countries that have more stringent national standards than those laid down in EU directives or set forth by OSHA.

Laws and regulations


The EU Directive 2006/42/EC and in the U.S., OSHA Regulations 1910.95 “Occupational noise exposure” are examples of regulations governing what noise can be permitted in the workplace. OSHA is the acronym for “Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” the federal agency responsible for ensuring implementation of legislation on health and safety at work in the U.S. Some countries have even more stringent national requirements than those specified in the EU Directives or OSHA.

Under the EU directive, the environment must meet the requirement for the lowest possible noise level in light of technological advances and the possibilities for controlling noise, especially by the sound source. If the stated guidelines are exceeded the cause must be investigated. A timetable for an action program must be formulated and implemented. Noise exposure must be reduced as far as is possible in practice under the specified values.

Employees must receive adequate information about the exceeded levels and the measures taken. Information must also be provided about the risk of hearing loss that exposure may pose and the obligation to wear hearing protection.

Machinery and technical equipment must be designed based on the latest technical developments for reducing noise. It is therefore important to monitor technological developments with respect to noise control. Noise reduction directly at the source of the noise is generally the most efficient and economical.

When determining the lowest level of noise exposure that is practicable, it is important to consider the latest technical advances and possibilities for limiting the noise.

Under the EU Directive, the previous reference to the economic feasibility of measures to prevent noise can no longer be used. One aim of the EU Directive is to prevent companies and countries from increasing their competitiveness through a poor working environment.

International and national regulations


Virtually all legislation regarding noise at work defines the limit for the maximum volume level to between 85 and 90 dB(A) Leq for eight hours of exposure. This limit is based on the guidelines of the International Standard ISO 1999:1990.

The European Directive 2003/10/EC, concerning the risks of exposure to noise at work, defines the maximum limit as 87 dB(A) Leq for an eight-hour day.

France, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand and Spain allow 85 dB(A) Leq for an eight-hour day and an exchange rate of 3 dB(A), while the US allows 90 dB (A) for an eight-hour day and an exchange rate of 5 dB(A).

If the exchange rate is 3 dB(A), it means that if the sound level increases by 3 dB(A), the amount of time a person can be exposed to it is cut in half.

In the UK, the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 set a limit of 87 dB(A) Leq for eight hours of exposure, in line with the EC Directive.

Developing countries have traditionally adopted the laws and regulations set by developed countries, without taking any greater account to local circumstances. For example, in 1948 India set a limit of 90 dB(A) for eight hours of exposure, but since most factories in India have a six-day work week, total exposure is 48 hours per week. As a result, cumulative exposure is higher than the limit approved in developed countries.

OSHA 1910.95 sets values for noise exposure in the workplace. The limits are based on a worker’s weighted average over an eight-hour day. OSHA sets the maximum permissible exposure limit (PEL) to 90 dB(A) for everyone who works eight hours per day. These levels apply for an exchange rate of 5 dB(A).

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the US recommends that the equivalent noise level that a worker is exposed to should be limited to 85 dB(A) for an eight-hour day to minimize the risk of hearing damage. Based on updated literature studies, NIOSH has found that significant hearing loss can occur even at levels in line with the OSHA PEL. NIOSH also recommends an exchange rate of 3 dB(A) so that each increase of 3 dB(A) halves the permitted exposure time.

Example: OSHA allows eight hours of exposure for noise levels of 90 dB(A), but only two hours of exposure to 100 dB(A). NIOSH recommends limiting eight-hour exposure to below 85 dB(A). For 100 dB(A), NIOSH recommends less than fifteen minutes of exposure per day.

In 1981 OSHA implemented new requirements to protect workers in the manufacturing industry. In cases where the worker is exposed to a weighted equivalent noise level of 85 dB(A) or more during an eight-hour shift, the employer must implement a hearing conservation program. Employers must measure the noise level, offer free annual hearing tests, provide hearing protection and training, as well as evaluate safety measures, unless they ensure that workers are exposed to less than 85 dB(A) by changing work practices, tools and equipment.