Noise: We think we can get used to it, but can we really? Consider: From where you are sitting (or standing) right now – listen and try to identify EVERYTHING you hear. A fan? An air conditioning unit? A laser printer? The coffee machine down the hall? Co-workers talking? What about outside? A construction worker using a jack hammer on a sidewalk? The siren of an ambulance getting louder and louder until it races by on an emergency?
We are surrounded by noise, we generate noise, but we often can’t control noise. Noise pollution is everywhere. And it’s gotten to the point where it is having a very detrimental effect on our lives. In fact, important research from the World Health Organization (WHO) has revealed environmental noise as one of the leading Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) in businesses and homes. (Both indoor and outdoor factors that contribute to the level of noise in homes and businesses is known as environmental noise.)
Ears are Fragile, but…
Ears are fragile instruments, and damage results from both volume and length of exposure to sound. Very loud noises, or chronic exposure to sound even when it is not particularly loud, can wreak havoc on hair cells, causing them to become disarranged and to degenerate. Once these hair cells are dead, they cannot be replaced, and auditory sensitivity is permanently lost. Ringing in the ears, difficulty hearing after exposure to loud noise, can signal damage to hearing.
…It’s Not Just Our Ears
But sound doesn’t just pound on our ears, our bodies feel it, too. Sound travels in waves like ripples in a pond and as pressure. The human body is impacted directly by this pressure of sound (measured in decibels). This impact is independent of the ears and is a direct result of sound pressure vibrating through hollow organs in the body (stomach, intestine, bladder, lungs, and heart).
Over longer periods of time, the body can react by elevating blood pressure and heart rate, increasing the risk of heart attacks and stroke. For instance, SDoH analysis found that the relative risk for death by heart attack or stroke increases 14% for every 10-decibel increase above the annual average of 45 decibels daytime! (It’s worth noting that the volume in a typical business office averages 55 decibels.)
Does YOUR Business Have a Noise Problem?
The first course of action is to determine how big of a noise problem exists in YOUR business. A simple sound meter and measuring / recording device can help identify noise levels and determine what areas of your office are the loudest.
If possible, convince other local businesses to measure the sound in their environments, too. Then, sharing community environmental data will give everyone a better idea of noise levels at various locations. Using devices linked in a network like an “Internet of Things” can assemble results and link anyone who’s interested to view the bigger picture and help determine an overall course of action.
Consider the Source
Is the noise coming from inside or outside? The solution could be something as easy as adding a door to a break room, consolidating office equipment to a specific room, or adding sound-dampening materials (such as ceiling tiles and carpeting), which can do wonders for reducing noise. If the problem is outdoors, that can get a little trickier. Highway and construction noise may require building walls or other barriers in order to block sound. Community involvement, and that of local elected officials, may offer answers.
Could YOU be Adding to the Problem?
Most of us have been conditioned to think that “background noise” is a good thing when nothing could be further from the truth. The piped-in ballads and other easy listening music from a “Muzak” system, or the “soothing” white noise effects of crashing waves, or the gentle gurgling of a stream only seem like good additions to a work environment. As we’ve seen, unnecessary noise is often BAD noise.
According to Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) research, listening to white noise for long periods of time on a consistent basis can affect brain cells and cause tinnitus (ringing of the ears). And even if you enjoy (or at least tolerate) the Muzak at your work, chances are that it is played too loudly. Adding to sound pressure adds to workplace stress, which escalates the problem of workplace noise.
Thanks to AI analysis technology that was not available previously, the physiological and psychological effects of environmental noise on people are only now coming to light. By doing some measuring of your own, you can easily understand the sound situation at your business and take steps to reduce this “sound assault” on your particular environment. Put another way, by NOT considering the effects of excess noise on employee health and productivity, you will only add to the cost of doing business. And we all know no business wants that.
Mike Bivins is an engineer with the Lake Wales, FL-based Natural Air E-Controls, LLC (www.naturalair.com). Natural Air E-Controls, LLC designs and builds HVAC control systems that enable the building’s HVAC equipment to provide fresh air and remove pollutants by taking in outdoor air in amounts needed to improve indoor air quality while saving on heating and cooling bills.