Workplace noise

The newest “it” device for open plan offices?

This might help.

Cisco is marketing headsets to help workers “stay focused in noisy environments.”  Businesses used to offer something to help their employees focus on work in the past, it was called an office.

But offices are expensive, the bean counters moan. Well, productivity takes a hit in noisy workspaces, as does trying to mitigate the noise with gadgets and quiet rooms. Just the earphone and headphone market alone was worth $11.68 billion in 2015 and the “number is expected to reach $18.2 billion by 2023.”

Which is why Cisco, smelling money, is manufacturing headsets to help workers “stay focused in noisy environments,” marketing them as “ideal for people who work side by side in contact centers and open spaces.” Says TechTarget, “[t]he move may be evidence that vendors are looking to capitalize on open-office plans.”

You think?

So take a look at the latest thing du jour designed to cure the open plan noise problem, but never stop dreaming of the return to sanity and sensibility.

Musician wins landmark case over damaged hearing

Photo credit: MITO SettembreMusica licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The BBC reports that a viola player who suffered a life-changing hearing injury at a rehearsal of a Wagner opera is entitled for compensation for his injury.

This is the first time that acoustic shock has been recognized as a compensable work-related condition.

A one-time exposure to extremely loud noise–often caused by a blast injury but possible from other loud noise–physically disrupts the structures in the inner ear. In many if not most cases, they can’t recover from the trauma.

Even if the noise isn’t 130 decibels, it can still cause lifelong hearing loss, tinnitus, or hyperacusis.

I have been unable to find more than anecdotal reports in the medical literature of this type of auditory damage, and in science the operative phrase is “the plural of anecdotes isn’t data,” but we all need to be aware of the dangers of noise.

As violist Chris Goldscheider unfortunately learned, if it sounds too loud, it is too loud.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

 

Color us surprised!

Turns out that people like to have private phone conversations in private spaces. Go figure! The New York Times looks at this phenomenon in a piece titled: Dial P for Privacy: The Phone Booth Is Back.

Naturally the phone booths highlighted in the article aren’t on the street. Rather, they are expensive ($3995 and higher) add-ons companies have had to squeeze into their open plan office spaces for those times that co-workers want less “collaboration” and more privacy. Something that used to be accommodated with these things called offices.

If phone booths are back, might offices be around the corner? [Not holding our breath.]

Thanks to Jeanine Botta for the link.

 

CDC: Occupational noise exposure can raise blood pressure, cholesterol levels

Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Quiet Coalition usually doesn’t comment on occupational noise because workers have legal protection from noise exposure under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, with noise exposure standards, required hearing protection, and compensation for hearing loss, while the public has none.

We have commented–as have many others–that the occupational noise exposure standards are set too high, but we otherwise focus on the public.

But it’s important to note that most of what we know about the dangers of noise comes from occupational studies.

This report from the Centers for Disease Control documents increased blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as hearing loss, in workers exposed to noise.

Many research studies, the overwhelming majority from Europe, document these non-auditory health impacts of noise in the public, too, but it’s good to see these issues finally being noticed in the U.S.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

 

Or you could just provide your employees a damn office

 

Here’s a cheaper alternative.  You’re welcome.    Photo credit: Mechatronics Guy licensed under CC BY 2.0

Do you work in a noisy open plan office? Need to make a private phone call? No worries, you can ring in privacy with the phone booth (reads the sponsored content).

And why not? With open plan offices still around, some accommodation has to be made when an employee needs to speak to her doctor or his spouse or to do their job.  But rather than re-evaluate the open floor plan and it’s inappropriateness for many jobs, do spend money on an ugly little space with, no doubt, a big price tag.

One hopes that after weighing the cost of providing overly designed quiet spaces coupled with lost productivity due to noise and distraction the C-suite geniuses will eventually discover the benefits of providing the worker bees a distraction-free office to do their damn job.

The open plan layout will encourage collaboration, they said

Photo credit: Elliott Brown licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Sadly, the reality is quite different: Francis Crick Institute’s £700m building ‘too noisy to concentrate.’

Robert Booth, The Guardian, writes about the £700 million “cathedral to biomedical science” that was designed with the goal of having “scientists work together to make breakthroughs in cancer, neuroscience, pandemics and genetics.” Unfortunately, following the herd lemming-like has resulted in the following:

A year after opening, some of the 1,250 people working at the Crick Institute, in its central London laboratory, have complained that the open plan design, intended to assist informal collaboration, means some areas set aside for thinking and writing up research are too noisy.

When will this open plan madness end? People who think for a living need some quiet. Not library quiet–if such a thing even exists anymore–but the kind of quiet that allows them to concentrate. You know, so they can do their work. And mind you, the work the researchers and scientists are doing at the Crick Institute is important stuff, not another startup making an app to do something no one really needs.

In any event, we can think of 700,000,000 reasons why the open plan concept needs to die. Stop buying into the collaboration myth and let people do their work.

Hearing loss a big problem for farmers and ranchers

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report discusses the problem of occupational hearing loss in farmers and ranchers. You may be confused, thinking farmers and ranchers must surely work in some of the most peaceful workplaces that exist. And that may be true part of the time, but they also use heavy equipment (tractors, harvesters, etc.) for long periods of time. Says Dr. Richard Kopke, M.D., FACS, chief executive officer of the Hough Ear Institute in Oklahoma City, “[e]xposure to tractors, forage harvesters, chain saws, combines, grain dryers, even squealing pigs and guns, can lead to significant hearing loss.”

Dr. Kopke offers advice to farmers and ranchers on how to avoid hearing loss, including the same point I always make: if you have to raise your voice to be heard, the ambient noise is above 75 A-weighted decibels and hearing loss is occurring.

But it’s not just farmers and ranchers at risk of noise-induced hearing loss. It’s everyone.

Hearing is precious. Speech is the main way humans communicate and relate to one another. As Helen Keller said (paraphrasing), “blindness separates people from things, but deafness separates people from people.”

It’s National Protect Your Hearing Month. Once hearing is lost, the only treatment is a hearing aid (or a cochlear implant for the severely impaired). If it sounds too loud, it IS too loud! Turn down the volume, leave or move away, or insert ear plugs or use ear muff hearing protection.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

How noise can affect workplace productivity

Photo credit: Peter Bennets licensed under CC BY 3.0

Joshua Lombardo-Bottema, Born2Invest, examines noise in the workplace and tells us what we can do about it. He writes that “[s]tudies have shown that unwanted noise is one of the leading environmental factors causing distraction and loss of productivity in the workplace.”  Hardly surprising, but how noise effects productivity is a bit more complicated.  First, Lombardo-Bottema says that noise makes us tired, because when we tune out the noise around us, we have to expend energy to do it.  Second, noise makes us slouch, and Lombardo-Bottema speculates that this leads to more frequent breaks to avoid physical damage. Finally, our attempts to block the noise with earphones playing our favorite tunes makes things worse when our work requires information retention or problem-solving skills, as the music fights for our attention.

So what can we do? The post is a bit thinner here, giving us three options: sound masking, quiet zones, or working from home.

The options all have their limitations, of course, which is why we are cheered by this: Is the open office layout dead? Let’s hope.

How to motivate millennials to protect their hearing at work

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Quiet Coalition doesn’t spend much time worrying about occupational noise because our focus is on protecting the general public from noise. Workers’ ears are protected by regulations drafted and enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and similar state agencies. Moreover, workers generally have health care for occupational injuries, and are compensated for work-related permanent damage (including hearing loss) by state-administered workers compensation systems. If occupational hearing loss is established, hearing aids may be provided for those with occupational hearing loss.

From time to time we will agree with the many observers who think that the occupational noise exposure limit–90 A-weighted decibels for 40 hours a week, 240 days a year, for 40 years, causing excess hearing loss in 25% of exposed workers–is set too high, but at least workers have that meager protection. There are no such protections for the public, and no compensation for hearing loss, either.

That said, we’re making an exception to share with you this well-written article in Occupational Health & Safety Magazine. It’s focused on preventing hearing loss in younger workers, but it provides good information for everyone who is concerned about their hearing.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

There’s a booming market for fancy noise-absorbing objects

Photo credit: SparkCBC licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Want to take a guess why? Yes, open offices. Sarah Kessler, Quartz, examines the world of open offices and the designers who try to fix them, like Aaron Taylor Harvey, the head of Airbnb’s internal architecture and interior design group. So what does Harvey do to control the din at Airbnb? His team hung “a series of banners set two feet apart and made out of recycled cotton” from the ceiling of a large open space, wrapped surfaces with “sound-absorbing panels that look like fabric wallpaper, and strategically placed sound-absorbing walls to separate areas of noisy collaboration from those with quiet focus.”

But these are new, cutting edge tech companies. They aren’t going to be satisfied with those beige fabric covered cubicle frames that traditional corporations use.  No, today’s designers are making the banners like those used at Airbnb with recycled denim. “[T]hey’re ideal for companies, like Airbnb, that want to be environmentally friendly,” writes Kessler. One company makes “sound-absorption panels that look like wood, and sound-permeable paint that can help disguise a panel as a piece of art,” while another “builds sound absorption into lamps, furniture, and room dividers.”

No doubt the cost of all these high-end fixes are cheaper than, say, providing a quiet space to each of Airbnb’s employees, but at what point do corporate executives and their bean counters decide that maybe the best option is to provide employees with an office where they can actually get their work done?