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The Power of Workplace Sound Control

Blog Post
November 24, 2020

Noisy manufacturing floors have got this down – they already know that sound levels are an issue and how to protect their workers from harm. But what if you’re managing something less obvious – like an office that is merely adjacent to manufacturing, next to a work zone, or near some other loud sound source – that is threatening the health of workers in a space not typically thought of as requiring full ear protection?

How Loud is Too Loud?

Distracting Levels

We know for a fact that noise affects employee productivity. In study after study, the psychological effects of unwanted or disturbing sound on the workplace are significant. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that workplace noise adversely affects millions of people’s lives, resulting in complaints of stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, and hearing loss.

According to a study by the University of California, Irvine, productivity decreases by as much as 40 percent from noise and distractions. The study found that employees are interrupted once every 11 minutes, and it can take as much as 23 minutes to get back on task.

When a physical space offers a little passive noise control (such as high cubicle walls, private offices, or softer, sound-absorbing materials), however, the effects on the well-being of each person – as well as their productivity – can be profoundly improved.

Legal Limits

Worse than causing distractions, sounds that are too loud can also cause permanent hearing damage and loss. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has standards in place to protect workers from injury caused by sound that’s too intense. Humans begin to suffer hearing loss over time at sustained levels of 90 decibels (dB) and above. The louder the sound, the less time it takes before hearing loss can happen.

If the average noise level in a workplace frequently exceeds 90 dB, OSHA can impose strict regulations to protect all exposed workers’ health. The organization can require the employer to minimize sound volume as much as possible. There are a few ways to accomplish this, such as by moving workspaces further away from the disturbance source, creating less noise through newer and quieter equipment, managing the sound better through sound masking, or combining all these means.

OSHA decibel levels for work environments

Under the OSHA hearing conservation program, employees exposed continuously to 90 dB of sound, and louder must take an annual hearing test. If there is a decline of over 10 dB in an employee’s hearing threshold, the company is required to notify the employee and file a report with OSHA.

Sound Control Technology

Sound control is the act of making an active acoustic effort to veil unwanted sound waves – in other words, controlling noise to a positive end.

A typical example is using a white noise machine in an office setting, which provides just enough background sound so employees can focus on their tasks without being distracted by conversations happening around them.

If you’re lucky, the technician appropriately spaced the machines, distributing the white noise around the room. If not, “too-hot” spots can exist, where the artificial sound is loud and distracting by itself – or in a “cold” zone where it barely reaches you, and you can still hear others talking with enough clarity to be disruptive. However, when the problem is too much volume, merely adding white noise won’t fix it.

Retrofitting Sound Control Technology

On the other hand, retrofitted planar loudspeakers make use of the solid surfaces already available in a space to distribute and minimize existing sound.

These loudspeakers use an immersive audio sound control system that harnesses planar wave physics similar to that of the soundboard of a piano or the body of a stringed instrument. The speakers turn any rigid, flat surfaces in a room – such as drywall, ceiling tiles, windows, or counters – into acoustic wave amplifiers that radiate evenly, providing a constant sound pressure level (SPL) across the entire listening space.

Because these products can equally radiate all frequencies across existing, rigid surfaces, they also help any intentional sound to diminish at a shorter distance.

For example, patients waiting in line to check-in at a medical clinic can be standing closer to each other and not hearing the personal information shared at registration. The planar loudspeakers reduce the sound much more dramatically over a shorter space. The experience for others, then, is of hearing muffled sounds – they know that someone is speaking but cannot tell what they’re saying.

These products are exceptional for use in circumstances where an unexpected sound is causing distractions or pushing the 90 dB limits requiring initiation of the OSHA hearing conservation program. And, while they’re always easy to plan into new-builds, they are surprisingly discreet and easy to install in an existing space.

A little sound masking technology can go a long way to protect your employees and your bottom line. Even farther than some of the noises you’re trying to silence.

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