The U.S. lags behind other industrial nations when it comes to establishing and enforcing federal noise standards, and the problem may boil down to one familiar battle: economics vs. the regulatory process. Stiff resistance to even the suggestion of stronger environmental noise standards leave many wondering if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has any power when it comes to revising out-dated noise standards or even enforcing standards put in place.
Noise pollution awareness is an uphill battle it seems, but New York City has made formidable progress over the past 15-20 years in toning down its volume. Anyone else remember the constant blare of taxi horns in Manhattan prior to the mid- to late 1990s, when laws were put in place to silence them? Although New York has worked hard to make the city less horrible in the noise pollution department, it still has a long way to go - as do most U.S. cities.
A recent test of sound levels at a handful of bars, gym, and restaurants in New York City measured noise levels so high that guests and employees exposed to the noise for just two hours are put at risk, and the establishments could be in violation of OSHA safety standards if anyone was bothering to enforce them.
But audiologists say that even if these businesses were in compliance with OSHA standards, it wouldn’t be enough to protect workers’ hearing. The fact is, the U.S. trails other industrialized countries when it comes to federal noise protection standards.
The New York Times did a recent “sound tour” of Manhattan, using a noise docimeter to measure decibel levels at 37 businesses including gyms, shops, bars and restaurants. Guided by Rick Neitzel, assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center, the dosimeter used A-weighting, a science that mimics the human ear’s sensitivity to sound at different frequencies.[i]
Nietzel, who has a substantial background in noise exposure research, in New York City and elsewhere, formatted the dosimeter to record various doses, based on standards established by OSHA, the National Institute for Occupations Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The docimeter was used to measure noise levels for exposure periods of 20 minutes to eight hours.
If you’re not familiar with how OSHA’s decibel exposure formula works, allow me to describe it as simply as possible. Basically, OSHA requires workers who are exposed to 90 decibels for eight hours to wear hearing protection. Ninety decibels is the approximate noise equivalent of heavy truck traffic.
OSHA states that when noise increases by five decibels, the noise workers are exposed to actually doubles. That means workers who needed hearing protection when exposed to eight hours at 90 decibels can only work four hours without ear plugs if the decibel level goes up to 95.
This might seem reasonable, unless you have worked in a 90-95 decibel environment for years, in which case you’re probably suffering from tinnitus and some significant level of hearing loss, not to mention possible cardio-vascular illness, high blood pressure, stress, and a sleep disorder. And harmful noise exposure is not limited to industrial environments. Teachers exposed to classroom noise for years are suffering from serious hearing loss by the time they reach middle age. If you work in a noisy restaurant with lots of hard surfaces off of which noise ricochets, or a bar in which conversations require yelling to be heard, or a gym with aerobics or spin class music blasting at 105 decibels - you’re probably at risk. Toll booth workers, shopping mall employees, telephone call center staff – and the list goes on, as noise today is an ubiquitous problem that many people have come to accept as part of daily life.
But other countries are doing a better job at complying with established noise standards. In fact, the U.S. is number 23 when it comes to noise exposure standards, tailing Argentina, Chile, Australia and the UK (to name just a few) in noise pollution protection. Britain is taking noise pollution very seriously, as it proved last week when Hyde Park police pulled the plug on a Bruce Springsteen/Paul McCartney concert that ran 10 minutes past the community’s noise curfew.
In fact, Britain has a Web site where people can calculate their daily doses of noise. Canada conducts audiological testing on its teachers annually to make sure they are not going deaf, and to take measures to protect those who are. Brazil and Australia have programs in place that call for routine risk assessments and revisions to broaden the scope of noise-related health and hearing protection and preventive initiatives.
Some powerful U.S. organizations may see to it that the U.S. stays at the bottom of the noise awareness pile despite the health risks of high decibel work environments. In 2010, OSHA reminded employers that providing earplugs for hearing protection in noisy work environments was only meant to be a temporary measure, and the agency would begin enforcing regulations requiring employers to soundproof noisy workplaces that did not comply with decibel limit recommendations. The move was necessary, OSHA representatives said, because too many workers were being harmed by workplace noise.
Additionally, the decibel limit was to be lowered to 85 – the same standard set in 21 of those 22 countries that rank ahead of the U.S. in noise exposure safety. India, home of the world’s two noisiest cities (Mumbai and Kolkata) is the only other country with a 90 decibel worker safety threshold. Plus, under the stricter guidelines, employers would need to acknowledge the change to from five to three decibels doubling the risk of hearing loss.
Before it had a chance to reach public service announcement status, OSHA’s mandate was slapped down by the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States Chamber of Commerce, who claimed the revised guidelines would be too expensive.
Audiologist and President of the National Hearing Conservation Association Laura Kauth says that the general consensus of hearing health professionals is that the U.S. should be adopting the 85 decibel limit in the workplace, and acknowledging the three-decibel standard for noise dose doubling, since regardless of the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce objections, U.S. employees are at risk under existing standards.
The New York Times study recorded the average noise level on a recent Saturday night at Manhattan restaurant Beaumarchais at 99 decibels. Under OSHA’s updated standards, exposure to the noise levels in this eatery becomes unsafe to workers after only 19 minutes on the job.
Enforcement of noise regulations at gyms, bars and restaurants in New York is largely non-existent. When employees complain about noise levels, their objections are almost never being reported to OSHA. Noise control proponents say that lack of awareness at the federal level could be partly to blame. The only federal department assigned to address environmental noise, the Office of Noise Abatement, was defunded 30 years ago under President Ronald Reagan, and States were notified then that they would no longer receive federal assistance to curb noise pollution.
Just one month after OSHA proposed the stricter guidelines in 2010, the agency withdrew its proposal.
[i] Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated Roar, Cara Buckley, New York Times, July 19, 2012