The Effects of Noise in the Workplace
Sound is an incredibly public phenomenon. We all create it, and it’s difficult to shield from people, apart from sound-buffering architecture, technological silencers, or personal accessories like earplugs. Like any place, the workplace is one spot where noise can become unpredictable and, at times, disruptive. The effects of noise in the workplace manifest in several ways, ranging from long-term hearing loss to psychological harm.
Employers are required, according to OSHA noise standards, to monitor sound volume in work environments to keep employees safe. If noise levels are consistently above 85 decibels, for example, they need to provide noise-canceling earplugs to prevent employee hearing loss. And even for levels within OSHA standards, employers can take measures to cut down on other effects of noise exposure.
Noise, over time, stresses us out. If you’ve ever been at a music festival for an extended period and wanted to leave, you know firsthand just how noise affects our bodies and mental states. Unpredictable noises around you activate your fight-or-flight response, in turn cranking up your heart rate. The noise doesn’t even need to be loud to do this, per se. And as your heart beats quickly, you also release the long-lasting stress hormone cortisol. If this experience becomes common at work, this bodily stress can translate to psychological impairment. With cortisol routinely running through you, you’re more likely to be hyper-vigilant and anxious. And if this tires you out, you’re at risk of exhaustion, which also can affect your mental health.
Concentration and Productivity Crater
Another effect of noise in the workplace is decreased productivity, because concentrating becomes more difficult. This also isn’t only a product of a particularly noisy workplace. The unpredictability of noise is the true culprit, sensitizing you to attend to its source. Conversations are uniquely disruptive, and the worst kind for productivity is a one-sided phone conversation. Nearby listeners cannot help but hear, and upon hearing one side, their brain tries to fill in the details—whether they want to or not. And when something like a ringing phone or nearby conversation distracts you, transitioning your attention from the task at hand, it’s often difficult to return to what you were doing. The delay is typically longer than you might expect—sometimes it takes several minutes before focus is restored. And all that lost time means lost money. This is important to acknowledge in a time when so many companies are implementing open office floor plans.
Long-Term Hearing Loss
Noise-induced hearing loss is an irreversible long-term health effect associated with high volumes. OSHA standards require ear protection at or above 85 decibels because long-term exposure to those volumes can cause little hairs in the inner ear (called stereocilia) to die. These hairs convert sound to nerve signals, and when they die, certain frequencies cannot be converted. It’s also possible for a sudden impulse from equipment to cause hearing loss.
Addressing the Issues
To prevent these negative effects, you can use your own ear protection. However, using headphones instead of earplugs can still distract you and still lead to hearing loss. If you want to bring about bigger changes, talk to your boss about limiting the prevalence of sound as much as possible.
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