Most contact centres operate as an open office type environment exposing workers to noise from a number of different sources, including:
- ringing phones
- voices of other workers
- office equipment
A background noise level greater than 60 dB(A) could cause the call handler to turn up the volume on the headset to hear over the noise. This practice may increase the risk of acoustic shock occurring as well as noise induced hearing loss in the long term if acoustic shock protection devices are not attached to headsets.
Protecting workers against excessive noise
You can become temporarily or permanently impaired if your unprotected ear is exposed to excessive noise. There is specific regulations about noise that can protect you to minimise the risk and exposure to excessive noise.
More information about managing exposure to noise is provided in the Managing Noise and Preventing Hearing Loss at Work Code of Practice (PDF, 1.24 MB).
To minimise the risks from background noise employers should:
- use sound absorbent materials and partitions of a suitable height in the design of contact centre work stations and breakout areas
- ensure office equipment such as printers and photocopiers are separated from the immediate work area
- identify and remove faulty telephone lines and headsets
- hold team meetings and briefings outside the immediate work area
- encourage their workers to not speak loudly or to hold conversations near call handlers, particularly during shift changeover
- train their workers to control voice levels.
What is an acoustic incident?
Contact centre workers may experience acoustic incidents such as a sudden loud shriek or piercing tone through their headsets. This can lead to an acute startle response and/or pain in the ear. Rarely some operators experience ongoing symptoms. This is more common where workers have high levels of stress.
Avoiding acoustic incidents
You can minimise the risks from acoustic incidents by:
- attach acoustic output limiter devices to headsets to prevent potentially damaging acoustic levels or content reaching the headset wearer's eardrum - ensure that speech clarity is preserved
- reduce the level of background noise in the contact centre
- ensure damaged equipment and network faults are repaired promptly
- ensure call handlers are trained in the proper fitting and use of headsets to reduce feedback
- implement policies and procedures for identifying and removing faulty headsets
- implement a mobile phone policy that prevents the use of mobile phones in the contact centre
- develop and implement a procedure for managing an acoustic incident and ensure call handlers are trained in these procedures
- train call handlers and supervisors in identifying an acoustic incident and what steps to follow in the event of a sudden loud and unexpected sound, causing pain
- ensure that work practices and the work environment do not contribute to occupational stress.
When setting up a contact centre, consideration should be given to locating it away from main thoroughfares and other areas (e.g. lunch rooms, meeting rooms, amenities and outside smoking areas) where large groups of people are likely to congregate and use mobile phones. This will help to minimise the risk of mobile phones interfering with headset use.
Test for hearing damage
Audiometric testing may be used to monitor a person's level of hearing. To help establish whether hearing damage has occurred, audiometric testing should be undertaken at the commencement of employment to identify the baseline hearing threshold of contact centre operators. The audiometric testing process should be repeated and compared to the baseline after a person has experienced an acoustic shock incident to determine if the person has suffered any hearing damage.
Call handlers wear headsets for long periods of time during their working day. This may present an increased risk of ear irritation and infection.
Headset hygiene should be maintained to prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as common colds and influenza.
Control strategies include:
- supply each call handler with a personal headset that is not shared with other call handlers
- if headsets must be shared amongst call handlers, clean headsets thoroughly (both ear and mouthpiece) and replace foam covers between uses
- train all call handlers in the regular cleaning and maintenance of headsets
- provide telephone, wireless or appropriate corded headsets that allow the operator to stand up and move around their work station during or between calls, as long as other workers are not adversely affected
- ensure that the headset is appropriately adjusted to suit the operator
- provide headsets with earpieces to minimise external noise
- ensure headsets are regularly cleaned or replaced to avoid potential ear irritation and infection and prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as common colds and influenza.