The UK is one of the noisiest countries in Europe. If you doubt it, ask yourself when you last enjoyed peace and quiet without venturing out to the middle of Dartmoor. Many shops sound like discos and even a well-known chain of booksellers now plays music instore. OK, it may not be that loud, but it still adds to the general noise pollution.
In industry, strict guidelines require the provision of ear protectors when the volume reaches a certain level. When noise in the workplace reaches 85 decibels, employees must be informed of the potential damage to their hearing, and ear protectors must be available on request. Stand by a busy road and you are likely to be subjected to a similar noise level.
Although that level will probably never be reached in an office, it does not mean there is no noise problem. Telephones, printers, photocopiers, inane chatter and background music all add up to potentially stressful situations. A well-designed office should have enough space between individuals to minimise distraction. But how many offices do you know that are well-designed?
Baffles or screens – either floor-standing or suspended from the ceiling – absorb noise, and where possible, photocopiers and printers should be separated from the main working area. Personal stereos are increasingly common in the office. They may help us through the mundanity of work but can be a distraction as those who like the chosen station will concentrate on it rather than on their work, and those who hate it will find it hard to concentrate.
The modern phenomenon of the call centre has its own problems. Research by the TUC found that nearly 40% of call centre employees had concerns about their hearing. Not only is noise stressful, it can be exhausting, forcing us to concentrate on what needs to heard while blotting out intrusive background noise.
I attended a conference in a Birmingham hotel. The lounge and bar area were large and had two conflicting sound sources – piped music competing with a large screen TV. When I asked them to turn one off, I was told it was company policy to have both on.
Restaurants and modern cafe bars are even worse. They commonly use minimalist, hard-surfaced decor and furnishings, which do not absorb sound. The volume of the music is often at or above the level at which hearing protection would be required in a factory and the situation is worsened by the pollution of constantly ringing mobile phones.
Now go up another notch and think about dance clubs and discos. In theory, the noise level in these should be controlled and audiences warned if the general level is likely to exceed 96 decibels. In practice, the level can exceed 100. In industry, if the level is more than 90 decibels – which, strange though it sounds, is nearly four times louder than 85 – employees are required to wear ear protectors because excessive prolonged noise at this, or a higher, level will cause permanent damage. Notices should be put up in areas where ear protectors must be worn.
“Exposure to excessive levels of noise can damage the tiny hair-like cells in the liquid filled cochlea, or inner ear,” says the charity Hearing Concern. “The hearing loss from such exposure is always permanent. The level of damage is dependent on the level of noise to which a person is exposed, and the length of time over which this exposure occurs.”
You might consider that noise does not bother you. This however may indicate that damage has already been caused. There is no doubt that continuous distraction by noise – from whatever source – is stressful, irritating and, over time, will have an affect on the general efficiency in the workplace.