Addressing the impact of excessive noise in the workplace
Noise at work can be a serious problem. Although, unless it is very loud, its impact is often under-evaluated by employers. However, exposure to prolonged or excessive noise has been shown to cause a range of health problems from poor concentration, stress, diminished productivity, speech interference, communication difficulties, and fatigue, to more serious issues such as cognitive impairment, tinnitus, hearing loss, depression, and even cardiovascular disease.
Industrialisation and urbanisation have led to noise disturbance becoming a more common problem in many workplaces. However, greater awareness of the significance of noise on a building’s indoor environmental quality – and addressing its impact – can have a dramatic effect on the long-term health and productivity of its occupants. A study by the World Health Organisation titled ‘Burden of disease from environmental noise’, collated data from various large-scale studies of environmental noise in Western Europe, over a 10-year period. Analysing the impact of environmental noise from transport and other urban sources, they found that at least one million years of life, across the continent, are lost each year due to noise pollution – and this figure doesn’t even include noise from industrial workplaces!
The authors of this study concluded that ‘there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population’. They ranked traffic noise second only to air pollution in its threat to public health.
And it’s not just a case of volume. Even relatively low-level, persistent sounds – during the day or while you sleep – can set off the body’s acute stress response. This raises blood pressure and heart rate, potentially mobilising a state of hyperarousal, leading to cardiovascular disease and other long-term health issues.
At louder volumes, noise at work can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss. Many of us have experienced ringing in the ears or temporary deafness after leaving a noisy place, this should not be ignored. It is a sign that you have caused some damage to your hearing, and if you continue to be exposed to similar levels of noise, your hearing will be severely damaged – permanently.
It is important, therefore, to differentiate between low-level background ‘sounds’ and obviously unpleasant loud ‘noises’. Dangerously loud noises should be avoided wherever possible. If an employee is required to work in a loud environment (i.e. in a manufacturing or construction setting), the noise level must be regularly measured and monitored, and the employer is legally bound to ensure the worker’s hearing is protected to the best of their ability. To do this, employers must provide appropriate hearing protectors which reduce noise levels to below 85 dB at the ear, and ensure signage is in place warning of damage to hearing if they are not worn.
Quieter, lower-level background ‘sounds’ are, of course, not similarly regulated. It is also the case that people can respond to them in a very individual and subjective manner. For one person, what they consider to be the pleasant ‘sound’ of people chattering in the background, can be an annoying and distracting ‘noise’ for somebody else. This is one reason why putting a radio on in the office may not be the best idea – one person may feel happy and relaxed listening to the music played on the radio whist the same station’s offering might make another person irritable, snappy, and unable to focus.
Complete silence, though, is generally not the answer as many people find it oppressive. Scientific studies show that background noise can, in fact, aid concentration – in the right circumstances.
Research into finding solutions to this dichotomy are ongoing, but there has been much work done into developing and composing artificial ‘soundscapes’ with the aim of improving the ‘indoor acoustic climate’ of many communal workspaces.
A typical application of this is the use of masking strategies, as in the use of water features to cover unwanted white noise from traffic. There is also the option of using recordings of natural sound sources such as wind through trees, birdsong, the sound of water running in a steam or the lapping of waves at an ocean’s shore. However, even these recordings of relaxing natural environmental sounds can lose their effectiveness when played on repeat. Varying what ‘soundscapes’ are utilised (and when) within a working environment is one possible solution to this issue.
Finding the appropriate noise levels within a working environment, therefore, takes careful consideration. To best mitigate the detrimental effects of environmental noise, the noise profile of an area should be considered when designing, constructing, and renovating buildings. Though if you find yourself in a situation where noise in the workplace is an issue, there are solutions, and here at DRS, we can help.
Addressing unwanted and damaging noise in the workplace is one of the key reasons why DRS is working in partnership with several other industry leading organisations and individuals – and also with the British Standards Institution (BSI) and our sister company EFT – to come up with a new set of standards for the health and wellbeing of non-domestic buildings.
This Publicly Available Specification (PAS) will create a set of standards for healthier buildings with the aim of improving the health and wellbeing of its occupants. It will direct how design, installation, operation, maintenance, and ongoing monitoring, measuring and reporting can influence factors such as those outlined previously, and it will determine benchmarking parameters to develop a Wellbeing Performance Rating that could be applied to any building.
If you want to discuss the options for improving the noise levels in your building, and how these changes can positively affect the health and productivity of the occupants, call Mark Phillips on 07534 321002 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you want to find out more about the new Publicly Available Specification (PAS 3003) and would like to get involved and contribute to its development, contact us at email@example.com
Mark Phillips is managing director at DRS, which is part of the RD Group – an innovative, high quality, multi-faceted group of companies providing full building services solutions.
He has over 40 years’ experience in the industry and has held several operational managerial and directorial positions with some of the UK’s largest firms since beginning his career as an electrical apprentice.
The role that he holds with DRS has made use of his expertise in: business planning; commercial and financial responsibility; HR; technical reviews; new products and processes, including Indoor environmental quality; building sensor technology; controlled environment agriculture; and resource to energy.
During his extensive career, Mark has been instrumental in the successful development of several business ventures, leading transformational change at project, programme and organisational levels.