Noise in the Workplace: Causes, Effects and Mitigation Strategies

Executive Summary

Noise pollution is one of the most detrimental environmental contaminant. It affects employees at the work place in many ways. Such health problems as hearing loss, stress, effect on pregnant mothers and hearing impairment are some of the negative effects of prolonged loud noise in workplace. Noise pollution also results in stress, sleep disruption and distraction of speech and communication. These effects of noise as an environmental contaminant can be prevented and protected in many ways as suggested by this paper. First, employers should identify the occupational exposure limits of noise and then develop a noised management program to enable employees tackle the problems of noise effectively. Employees should also be trained and educated on how to deal with excess noise and the roles they can play in the noise pollution program. They should also be provided with personal hearing protection devices so as to protect themselves from excess noise.

  1. Introduction

There are various environmental contaminants affecting workplaces. One of the most common environmental contaminants at the workplace is noise. Noise is an environmental contaminant if it is so high that it may cause a substantial impact on a significant number of people a significant number of people at the workplace does not refer to many people as such, but any employee whose contribution to the organization is crucial to the performance of the company. Noise is a high sound which occurs as a result of non-ionized acoustic radiation. Non-ionized radiation occurs due to low frequency electromagnetic waves, microwaves and radio waves.

This type of environmental contaminant has various implications on a company’s workplace, one of which is detrimental loss of hearing by the affected persons at the workplace. As a result, it is important to take appropriate measures in order to reduce the impact of noise at the workplace. In order to do this, it is important for the noise management authorities to understand the specific sources of noise so as to prevent it from reaching undesirable limits (Gertz & Di, 2012). This paper will provide a report covering a wide range of issues encompassing the whole concept of noise as an environmental contaminant at the workplace. First, the paper will highlight various sources of noise, and then proceed to identify its impacts on the workplace. Finally, the report will identify the prevention and protection measures against noise at the workplace.

  1. Sources of environmental noise pollution/contaminant

Environmental noise contaminant at the workplace is mainly caused by industrial equipment and air conditioners. It is caused by noise from an industry, demolition and construction site, and noise caused by human activities such as barking dogs, outdoor events e.g. drama and festivals, loud music and land mowers.

Transport related activities also act as a significant source of environmental noise pollution. Moving and hooting buses, cars, motorcycles, trains, trucks and ambulance sirens are good examples of transport facilities causing environmental noise pollution; especially in urban areas. Airplanes may also cause noise pollution at the workplace, especially for air transport companies. It may affect a small local community but the noise emissions are regular and detrimental. Most of these sources of environmental noise pollution are often uncontrolled and unregulated (Gertz & Di, 2012). They occur at any time – night or day. However, some communities have set up regulations to determine the occasions and time when activities producing noise should be carried out at the workplace so as to minimize environmental noise pollution.

  1. Effects of noise at work

Workers who are exposed to noise at work are likely to suffer some ill-health. Getting exposed to noise regularly for a significant period of time harms workers’ health at workplace. Most of the impacts of noise on employees at work are health effects, which in most cases are preventable (Bharucha, 2005). One of the most significant effects of noise as an environmental contaminant is loss of hearing. Noise may also increase the risks of accidents and cause stress among workers. The levels of impact of noise on individuals depend on their tolerance to noise and length of exposure. This indicates that noise impacts on individuals differently and to different levels. Some people may experience hearing loss or stress after a short period of exposure to noise while others may take quite a long period before they experience hearing loss or stress.

  • Health effects of noise
    • Hearing loss or impairment

Loss of hearing or hearing impairment may occur when sound transmission is mechanically blocked from reaching the inner hear. This is what is often referred to as conductive hearing loss. Other types of hearing impairment may occur due to what is referred to as sensor neural hearing loss which occurs when the hair cells in the Cochlea (also part of the inner) are damaged due to high levels of noise. Auditory centers of the brain may also be affected, a situation which rarely occurs. If it occurs, the affected individual will experience central auditory disorders that may cause hearing impairment. Hearing loss is a big disaster at workplace because one will not be able to communicate effectively with his/her colleagues. As a result, operations are slowed down work performance will definitely decrease. This sometimes forces companies to layoff the affected individuals or transfer them to less important jobs because they will no longer be as productive as they were in their initial health states. Although hearing losses are rare at workplace, they are potentially detrimental and should not be taken for granted.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) occurs often at workplaces. It is the most notable occupational disease among European workplaces (OSHA, 2005). It accounts for one out of three diseases related to work. According to OSHA’s 2005 factsheet, hearing loss occurs due to a prolonged exposure to loud noise. This indicates two vital elements in assessing the impact of noise on employees or other individuals at work – “prolonged” and “loud”. It is clear that hearing loss only occurs when one is exposed to high frequency sounds for a substantially long period of time. One symptom of hearing loss is the inability to hear high pitched sounds. If these symptoms are noted and no further action is taken to contain it or prevent further hearing problems, hearing will decline even further and one may fail to detect low-pitched sounds. Sometimes hearing loss may be experienced even without prolonged exposure to loud sounds. Impulsive noises such as gunshots may result in permanent hearing problems.

One may never notice significant hearing loss occurring. The process starts with the individual being unable to hear higher frequency sounds (Kumar, 2004). However, since normal communications at work does not involve these higher frequency sounds, changes in hearing may never be noticed. With increased exposed to noise, hearing ability of the individual declines and in the end hearing loss spreads to low-frequency sounds used in normal communications at work. Unfortunately for hearing impairment, a los hearing can never be repaired or replaced under any circumstance. Therefore, it is important for hearing impairment to be prevented rather than attempting to heal it because it has never occurred that a hearing impairment can be healed. Specific measures need to be taken to prevent loss of hearing at work, considering the fact that hearing loss can be experienced before it can actually be noticed.

  • Tinnitus

This refers to hissing or ringing sensation in one’s ears. Like hearing loss and hearing impairment, Tinnitus occurs as a result of prolonged exposure to noise (Kumar, 2004). The condition is more significant and alarming in situations of impulsive noise such as blasting. Tinnitus is one of the first signs of damaged ears.

  • Combination of chemicals and noise at work

The effects of exposure to noise are more detrimental if workers are exposed to chemicals and noise at the same time than when they were exposed to either of them separately. Exposure to chemical substances and noise concurrently causes higher risks of hearing damage. Research has shown this synergy to be more notable in combination of noise and some organic solvents such as carbon disulphide and styrene. In paint and plastic industries, it is always likely to experience an exposure to both noise and organic solvents. This accelerates the effects of noise pollution on the hearing problems of workers at workplace.

  • Effect of noise on pregnant mothers

High levels of noise at work often affect unborn children if pregnant mothers are exposed to such levels of noise. Exposure to noise for a long period may cause tiredness and high blood pressure among pregnant mothers. Research has shown that exposure of loud music to the unborn child may result in negative effects later (OSHA, 2005). Low frequency noise has even greater chances of causing hearing damage to the unborn child. Pregnant mothers should always be allowed to work in environments without exposure to noise because even protective devices cannot protect the unborn child from being exposed to noise. Therefore, employers should always assess pregnant women’s work environment to ensure that they are not exposed to noise. If they are, they should be transferred to other working environments.

  • Stress

Stress is a common health problem experienced by workers at the workplace. It often occurs as a result of workers’ inability to cope with or control the demands of work environment. Factors which contribute to work-related stress are referred to as stressors. Stress mainly occurs as a result of an interaction of two or more causal factors (stressors). Occupational noise is considered as one of the work-related stressors which cause stress (Wang, Hung & Pereira, 2005). Noise, even at levels that are not likely to cause hearing loss, may be considered as stressors. For instance, the ringing of a telephone or the hum of an air conditioner in combination with other factors such as physical environment may cause stress among employees at workplace.

The extent to which noise can be a stressor at workplaces depends on a number of factors. One of the factors is the nature of noise – tone, predictability and volume. The second factor is the complexity of the work carried out by the employee. For instance, a job that requires concentration may consider talking by workmates as a stressor. Considering noise as a stressor also depends on the occupation of the worker. The worker him/herself may also be considered as a contributing factor to the extent to which noise may be considered as a stressor (Ivanov & Blue, 2007). To a tired person, some levels of noise which could have otherwise been harmless in other circumstances may be a stressor.

  • Non-health effects of noise pollution

Noise may also cause other effects at the workplace that are directly related to the employees’ health. Such effects include: increased accident risk, interference of speech or communication and sleep disruption. These factors may in some way affect the health of workers and other members of the society, but may not necessarily be of major health concern.

  • Increased risk of accidents

Although noise at work does not directly lead to accidents, they may contribute to increased chances of occurrences of accidents. There various ways through which noise may cause an increased risk of accidents at the workplace. First, noise leads workers not to hear and interpret speech signals correctly nor hear the sound of an approaching disaster. As a result, workers may not be able to react appropriately to potential accidents which had been communicated to them in a noisy environment. For instance, if a building materials falls from the top of a house under construction and someone is busy working on the ground, his workmates may shout at him to run away. However, if the environment is noisy he/she may not hear his colleagues and he may be injured in the process. This is one of the indications that noise is detrimental to the safety of employees at the workplace. Therefore, it is important for employers to check the company’s workplace regularly to ensure that the level of noise is good for a safe working environment.

Noise may also distract workers such as drivers in their jobs, hence leading them to cause accidents (Plattenberg, 2006). A driver who may be distracted by noise in his job may fail to hear the sound of a hooting car or vehicle overtaking him. This may result in collision of vehicles or other related accidents. A doctor who is distracted by people talking may also fail to hear the agony of a crying patient who is experiencing pain in the hospital. These examples suggest that high levels of noise may distract workers and cause them not to discharge their duties appropriately as required of them, hence posing a risk of accidents. As noted earlier, noise also causes occupational stress which may increase loads on one’s cognition, hence increasing the chances of committing errors and causing accidents.

  • Interference of speech or communication

A well-performing organization is characterized by effective communication. Communication is an essential part of organizational goals and strategies. However, noise may interrupt with the communication and speech process of a company’s workplace. A good communication requires a speech level that is higher than the noise in the surrounding environment of the listener. If there is a surrounding noise, one may not hear the contents of communication speech sufficiently. This may result in poor decision making at workplace, hence causing poor organizational performance. This is even more dangerous if the listener already suffers from a hearing loss. Ineffective communication may also be occasioned by speech made in a language that the listener is not familiar with. If the listener does not understand the language spoken by the speaker, then the speech may be considered as noise to the listener – an environmental contaminant – because it interferes with the employee’s interaction with the work environment (Kumar, 2004). The surrounding noise may also be considered as a disturbance of speech and communication if the listener suffers ill-health or is tired or has a heavy workload constrained by time. The impact of interrupting with communication speech depends on the work environment. An interruption of a teacher may cause him to raise his voice, resulting in vocal problems.

  • Sleep disruption

Finally, loud/prolonged noise as an environmental pollutant and contaminant may cause sleep disruption. If the normal cycle of sleep is disrupted, one may develop poor concentration and experience a decline in performance at work. Lack of sleep also causes changes in weight and deterioration of the overall wellbeing of the affected person (Bharucha, 2005). If lack of sleep combines with stress, one may become frustrated and aggravated. Sleep disruption may also cause social consequences such as short-temperedness and aggressiveness. These social consequences may finally lead to poor social relationships.

  1. Prevention and protection measures against noise at the workplace

Most of the effects of noise pollution, especially the health problems, are better solved through preventive measures than treatments. Health effects of noise are prevented mainly by reducing noise at the source. Therefore, in order to prevent negative effects of noise pollution, it is important to identify the source of noise.

  • Defining Occupational Exposure Limits

In order for a company to deal effectively with noise problems, it needs to define the required Occupational Exposure Limits (OEL) required from the source of noise. OEL refers to the maximum amount of noise exposure by a worker without using hearing protection devices. In order to arrive at occupational exposure limits for a worker, it is important to consider the loudness of the noise. Noise loudness is measured in decibels (dBA). Another consideration in determination of an OEL apart from loudness of the noise is the duration of exposure to the noise. This measured in number of hours per day (H/D). After determining the maximum amount of noise that the workers should be exposed to, the employer should establish noise management program that may be used to control the noise to the required levels.

  • Noise Management Programs

Excess noise occurs when noise at workplace exceeds Occupational Exposure Limits. At this level, noise may be considered as environmental pollutant (Pandey, 2005). Employers may reduce excess noise to the required level by developing a noise management program which undertakes the following noise management activities: educating workers, measuring and monitoring sound levels, controlling noise exposure and using hearing protection devices.

  • Educating Workers

Workers who have been exposed to noise beyond the Occupational Exposure Limits should be trained and given instructions about noise as an environmental contaminant, its impact on their health, protection mechanisms against it, employees’ responsibilities and roles in the program. Workers should be trained to comply with the employer’s program as a condition of employment (El-Ahraf, Qayoumi & Dowd, 1998). Regular and consistent training and education of workers enables them to understand the importance of protecting their hearing at work or at home.

  • Measuring and monitoring sound levels

A survey should be conducted at the workplace to determine noise hazards in the company’s work environment and the workers who are likely to be affected by noise levels exceeding OELs. These surveys are carried out by measuring the loudness of noise and the duration of exposure of workers to such levels (Gertz & Di, 2012). Once measured, the noise levels are then regularly monitored to see if there is a positive progress to reduce excess noise.

  1. Recommendations

OHSA rules regulate that the levels of noise should not exceed 85 dBA (Rincón, 2011). It may also be as low as reasonably possible. This applies to the construction of new sites, alteration of an existing workplace, launch of a work process and installation of new equipment. This paper recommends various mechanisms of controlling noise exposure. These include engineering control, administrative control and providing personal hearing protection. Engineering control entails reduction or elimination of noise using substitution, modification, isolation or maintenance approaches. Administrative control may involve rotation of work schedules so that a worker may be exposed to noise only within required standards. If the levels of noise exposure are not reduced by any of the above methods, employers should provide personal hearing protection devices to their workers.


References list

Bharucha, E. (2005). Textbook of environmental studies: For undergraduate courses. Hyderabad: Universities Press.

El-Ahraf, A., Qayoumi, M. H., & Dowd, R. (1998). The impact of public policy on environmental quality and health: The case of land use management and planning. Westport, Conn: Quorum.

Gertz, E., & Di, J. P. (2012). Environmental monitoring with Arduino. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.

Ivanov, L. L., & Blue, C. L. (2007). Public health nursing: Leadership, policy, & practice. Australia: Delmar Cengage Delmar.

Kumar, A. (2004). Environmental contamination and bioreclamation. New Delhi: A. P. H. Publ. Corp.

OSHA (2005). The Impact of noise at work. The factsheet. Accessed on May 26, 2013 from   

Pandey, V. C. (2005). Environmental education. Delhi: Isha Books.

Plattenberg, R. H. (2006). Environmental pollution: New research. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Rincón, R. D. (2011). Environmental law in Colombia. Alphen aan den Rijn: Kluwer Law International.

Wang, L. K., Hung, Y.-T., & Pereira, N. C. (2005). Advanced Air and Noise Pollution Control.  Totowa, NJ: Humana Press.

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B. Economics & Finance, B/ED, Writer, Educator with experience of 12 years in research and writing.

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