Noisy staff could land employers in jail as part of a crackdown over noise pollution

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Employers who fail to curb the behaviour of very noisy staff face unlimited fines or even imprisonment under new health and safety regulations that the Government is planning to introduce next year.

The new regime for safe noise exposure at work has been drawn up by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and may lead to some office workers wearing headphones. Ministers are set to approve the rules, which introduce a European Union directive lowering the decibel exposure limit from 85 to 80 decibels (dB).

Bars and clubs in which loud music is played are expected to face the brunt of the tougher limits, but open-plan offices in which staff have to shout to do their jobs will also be affected by the proposal.

Lawyers believe City dealing rooms and call centres could be the first to fall foul of the new noise regime. The overall cost to business is estimated to be £110m in the first year.

Martin Edwards, head of employment law at Mace & Jones in Liverpool, warns that the new rules go much further than concerns expressed on behalf of those people working in clubs and pubs: "What if your work colleagues are consistently raucous or keep shouting messages or orders? The row they make may sometimes be louder than a loud radio - which, at 75dB is within acceptable limits.

"Health and Safety Executive guidance says there may be a problem if you have to shout to be clearly heard by someone two metres away. Workers regularly exposed to noise levels of 85dB must be subject to health surveillance. Obvious danger areas include construction sites - a chainsaw may reach 115dB or more - but people working at discos and football grounds may also be at risk."

Concerns have also been raised by orchestras, whose musicians may have to play more quietly from February 2006. A single trumpet is said to play up to 130dB and the Association of British Orchestras, which is seeking an exemption from the legislation, fears that the directive would effectively silence performances.

About 700,000 people, mostly in industrial jobs, are affected by the current decibel rules. The new limit would affect a further 400,000 workers.

Hugh Robertson, head of Health and Safety at the Trades Union Congress, said that the vast majority of open-plan offices would be unaffected by the new regulations. But he said the impact of any continuous noise that exceeded the new 80dB level could be reduced by putting up office partitions or making staff wear "binaural headphones".

But, he added: "To reach these levels would involve people yelling and shouting outside your office. Ordinary conversations are about 40dB, loud conversations reach 50dB. 60dB would be very loud."

A noise assessment study published by the HSE found that the regulations would have "large, long-term health and safety benefits from the introduction of new requirements designed to reduce noise exposure further and provide for greater health surveillance."

The HSE estimates that the changes will save between £265m and £582m in NHS and other costs over 10 years.