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Do You Have a Noise Problem at Work?

written by: Sylvia Cochran•edited by: Marjory Pilley•updated: 6/28/2011

Controlling workplace noise enhances worker productivity and protects employees’ hearing. This involves sounds from the outside as well as workplace-generated din. There are five steps that companies can take to reduce auditory disturbances.

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    1. Identifying a Noise Problem

    “Cubicles The Sound Guy, Inc. reveals that 70 percent of surveyed office workers complained about noise disturbances; only 19 percent of executives realized that the problem existed. Could this be true for your workplace as well? Overcoming this hurdle takes a concerted effort of the management teams and supervisory staff.

    The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) offers a very detailed noise exposure computation methodology. It is generally considered to be a requirement for work environments where manufacturing activities actively contribute to the auditory environment. For the office environment, where there is little workflow-generated noise, assess a noise problem first with a common sense approach:

    • Does the loudness of the work area mimic a busy intersection during rush hour traffic?
    • Do you have to raise your voice to discuss an issue with a coworker who stands a couple of feet away?

    If there is evidence that supports potential noise problems in your workplace, enlisting the help of OSHA-approved sound meter devices is a good idea.

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    2. Sourcing Noise Patterns

    In a manufacturing environment, there are certain areas of the workplace that are significantly louder than others. The same holds true within the office environment. Breaking up the floor plan of the venue into sectors and assessing noise problems in this manner helps to localize possible solutions. For example:

    • Areas around machinery, including the office copier, are louder than areas set up as offices.
    • Cubicles are notorious for sound pollution, some of which is voluntary.
    • Areas open to the public, or areas that act as a thoroughfare for workers, will be noisier than areas that are off-limits to the majority of people.
    • Areas near windows, doors leading to the outside -- and also those spaces adjacent to the parking lot area -- will experience more din than those spaces situated closer to the center of the venue.

    Log the types of sounds that are the most distracting and highlight if they follow a certain pattern.

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    3. Rearranging the Workplace to Limit Sound Exposure

    Complex work tasks that rely on what psychologists term a “state of flow," are the most vulnerable to distractions and noise interruptions. Take the workers who perform them out of the cubicle environment and place them into an office space closer to the center of the venue. This minimizes the impact of general worker-generated noise.

    Place noisy office equipment close to the exterior walls, where noise is already higher due to outside traffic. Discourage collaborative efforts that span multiple cubicles; instead, set aside conference room space for this task. Separate manufacturing space from other areas of the operation with sound-proofing walls and doors. Place the employee lounge in an area where sound will not travel into cubicle spaces.

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    4. Eliminating Employee Noise Contributions

    The small radio in the cubicle is a great motivator for the individual worker, but it also contributes to the noise pollution that the worker in the neighboring cubicle experiences. One employee’s classical music is another’s distraction. Requiring headphones for workers who want to listen to music is a good idea, unless the job includes the use of headphones for business purposes. You may consider stipulating that employee-operated radios do not exceed a certain noise level.

    In the same way, manage cubicle workers by curtailing the conversations that do not contribute to the work at hand. Some staff members do not realize that their voices carry and they may be discussing matters that are of no interest to a person three cubicles down. Ask employees to limit social interactions to break times; direct them to take all collaborative efforts to the conference room area.

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    5. Investing in Quiet Computers and Silent Peripherals

    A constantly ringing workplace phone should be relocated into the office of a worker tasked with answering it. Silent computing peripherals cut down on the clicking keyboards and humming power supplies. This technology greatly cuts down on the noise in the small one-room office and also the large multi-cubicle work space.

    Replacing currently used office equipment with quiet computing products is a rather large investment. Wait until it is time to replace outdated office equipment to do so -- or if an OSHA test identifies the currently used peripherals to be main noise polluters.

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    Controlling workplace noise is a partnership between the management team, the workforce and workplace regulating agencies. Even if you go ahead and only change one of the offending noise generators in your work environment, there is a good chance that it will have a noticeable effect on workers and productivity.

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    Sources

    • The Sound Guy, Inc., http://chatterblocker.com/whitepapers/conversational_distraction.html
    • OSHA, http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=9736
    • Image: “Cubicles" by Larsinio/Wikimedia Commons via PD-SELF