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Groovin' at work (safely)

September 8, 2005
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What are your safety policies for workers who want to plug into their own music on the job?

"Employees are bringing their own music to work far more than in years past, simply because of the high-tech, portable players now available," says productivity expert Laura Stack, in an article published in the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal.

According to OSHA: In a 1987 letter of compliance interpretation, the agency stated:

  • If Walkman headsets are worn over otherwise effective ear protection, then the unit's volume control has to be adjusted to exceed the hearing protector's field attenuation. This obviates the effectiveness of the ear protection and is a violation of the noise standard.

  • The industrial hygiene department of GM found typical headset output levels of 99 to 100 dBA in auto workers with a maximum exposure level of 117 dBA.

  • Listening to a Walkman unit at more than 50% to 75% rated output will generate sound levels in excess of the OSHA PEL creating a threat to the wearer's hearing, and this may also produce a safety hazard by masking environmental sounds that need to be heard.

  • The United States Postal Service developed special ear muffs equipped with volume-limited music for use in monotonous high noise jobs to protect employee hearing but at the same time allowing them to enjoy background music. Such devices are in compliance with OSHA regulations if they meet the attenuation requirements relative to the workplace noise levels and their average music output is less than 90 dBA.

  • Use of a Walkman in noise environments in excess of Tables G-16 and D-1 is a violation.

  • Use of a Walkman over required ear protection is a violation.

  • Use of a Walkman in occupational noise less than Tables G-16 or D-1 is at managerial discretion unless its use causes a serious safety hazard to warrant issuance of a 5(a)(1).

  • Management and employees must be made aware that Walkman-type devices do pose a hazard to hearing if they are played too loud for any significant length of time whether on or off the job: The energy, not the esthetics, of sound poses the threat to human hearing sensitivity.

    We've come a long way since the Walkman. Here are the different ways people listen to music at work today:

    • Compact disc drives installed in computers
    • Personal compact disc players
    • Portable radios
    • iPods
    • Personal cassette players
    • MP3 players
    • Web sites that play music files, like or
    • Satellite radios

    Scientific studies show links between music and increased productivity (what about safety?), but experts say the type of music that's playing while workers are working is important:

    • Forget rock and songs with vocals, suggests Stack. “You wouldn't want to put rock music on while you're focusing," Stack says. "If you're listening to the music, then you're being distracted."

    • Classical music may be best for working, according to Advanced Brain, a firm in Ogden, Utah.

    • Music containing 50 to 60 beats a minute — the average heartbeat of an adult male at rest — is optimal for concentration and learning, based on research from an independent psycho-acoustics lab, according to Advanced Brain.

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