The unveiling of the first “Superdesk” just over a month ago caused eyebrows to rise in unison across the more discerning areas of the web. The 1100 ft table, which snakes through the open-plan office of New York advertising agency the Barbarian Group like a giant Scalextric, has been called “a marvel of design” and “4400 square feet of undulating, unbroken awesomeness" which "keeps people and ideas flowing."
Meanwhile, the Superdesk sceptics (mostly employees working in open-plan offices) murmured discontentedly about the lack of privacy, extreme distraction and loss of productivity created by the resulting noisy environment.
The risks of high noise volumes
According to the World Health Organization, 40% of Europe’s population is exposed to noise levels above 55 decibels, a level at which disturbed sleep; raised blood pressure; and an increased incidence of heart disease can occur. For reference, sound levels in a library are estimated to taper off at 30 decibels, while a busy office clocks in at around 65.
In a white paper titled Building in Sound, Julian Treasure, chairman of the Sound Agency, teamed up with audio technology provider Biamp Systems to examine the impact of sound on human well-being. Interestingly, the report focused on classrooms, healthcare units and open-plan office environments rather than on spaces traditionally associated with noise issues. The research revealed that background noise, even at low levels, was associated with increased stress hormone levels, reduced attention, impaired short term memory and compromised reading comprehension, all resulting in a lack of willingness to engage with and help others.
Moving up the scale, the research also revealed that levels above 70 decibels are linked to permanent hearing loss, while anything above the level of 80 decibels increases the likelihood of industrial accidents.
Are your employees suffering from noise-induced problems?
Early diagnosis is essential to ensure that the aural and psychological health of your staff is not compromised. If you have suspicions that the acoustic environment in which your staff operate might be affecting them, consider if there is a chance of the following telltale signs:
- The productivity of normally conscientious employees drops
- Employees show signs of irritability or withdrawal
- Employees have to raise their voices to carry out a normal conversation when about two metres from one another
- Employees suffer from muffled hearing at the end of the day but feel much better in the morning
- Employees struggle to follow a phone conversation
- Employees' families complain that the television or radio is too loud
- Employees find it difficult to catch sounds like 't', 'd' and 's' and misunderstand similar words
- Employees experience ringing, humming or buzzing in their ears.
Friendly chats tend to bring much more successful outcomes than formal meetings, so show concerns for your employees and question whether they feel noise levels are affecting them. Talk through the most common symptoms observed in the workplace and advise them accordingly on next steps if relevant.
What should you do?
Since the passing of the 2005 Control of Noise at Work Regulations, UK employers have a duty to assess health and safety risks to workers when noise levels reach the lower exposure action values of 80 decibels for daily or weekly exposure or 135 decibels for peak sound (intermittent loud noise).
They are also obliged to make personal hearing protection available if employees request it and exposures are between 80 and 85 decibels or 135 and 137 decibels for peak noise, and provide it and ensure it is worn above 85 decibels or 137 decibels for peak noise.
(See www.osha.gov for OSHA’s hearing conservation standard requirements.)
However, more importantly employers should take general measures to eliminate or control exposure to harmful noise where it is present, and have a planned programme of controls if exposure is above the upper exposure action values. This might involve selecting quieter equipment and machinery, using barriers to block the path of sound and reducing the amount of time staff spend in noisy areas. Employees should also be provided with health and safety information and training if exposures are above the lower exposure action values.
Yet the British Safety Council, the government-regulated awarding organisation in health and safety, reports that purchasers and users of machinery are often unable to make informed decisions regarding noise protection since information provided by manufacturers is all too frequently inaccurate. Regular in-situ controls are therefore essential to ensure that employers fulfil their legal duties in adequately ensuring the health and safety of their staff.
Going beyond the standards
As for work environments where noise levels do not legally require control and protection – such as open-plan offices, schools or hospitals - it is a case of looking at innovative ways to lower noise so that employees, pupils and patients are made comfortable and can work, learn or recover as effectively as possible.
There are three crucial areas to consider:
Are there any ways to reduce ambient noise produced throughout the day, for example by fans, phones, flooring, doors, etc? Isolating photocopiers in a dedicated room can greatly help employees maintain their attention levels.
A wide range of materials and techniques are now available to stop sounds from travelling and reverberating as well as to assist speech clarity: noise absorbing furnishing, sound-insulating ceiling installations or partition walls are only a few examples of what is available.
Finally, appropriate background sound has been proven to impact the mood and attitudes of people in these environments. Depending on the budget available in your workplace, you could encourage the creation of soothing playlists or commission professionals to create something that is relevant to your environment and flexible enough to work for everyone.