Occupational Hygiene Blog

Loud noises aren't just annoying... they're bad for your health

Besides noise being a source of annoyance, it can also have a significant impact on your health, particular if you're exposed to continuous and excessive noise levels at work.

According to a new study out of Germany’s Mainz University Medical Centre, an increasing amount of noise can actually throw your heart out of rhythm. Called atrial fibrillation, this irregular heart beat can lead to blood clots, stroke, and even heart failure.

“Anything that can create agitation, irritation, or changes in blood pressure can trigger fibrillation,” explains Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, a board-certified family medicine physician in Washington. “It’s not surprising that irritable noise, or noise in general when someone is looking for quiet, could trigger this in the cardiac system.”

Numerous studies have shown the risks of long-term exposure to noise. And there’s reason to believe that it’s not just the level of sound, but the types of sounds themselves that are to blame. (After all, who complains about the sound of an ocean lapping at the shore?).

When it comes to detecting danger, we humans prioritise what we hear rather than how loud it is. That’s why even during sleep, your brain is still listening. Just the angry jockeying of traffic outside your bedroom window may trigger your body to churn out cortisol (the “stress hormone”) even if you never wake up.

Here are the other stealthy ways a barrage of “bad” noise can hurt your health.

Your hearing takes a hit

You know your ears feel funny after being bombarded by noises like the sound of jackhammers right outside your home. But you might not know why. “Loud noise exposure can damage or destroy hair cells found within our hearing organ,” explains Dr. Ana Kim, an otolaryngologist at Columbia Doctors and associate professor of Otolaryngology at Columbia University Medical Centre in New York City. About 10,000 tiny hair cells inside our ears are responsible for converting every sound we hear into electrical signals. Those signals then get transferred to the hearing centres in our brains that allow us to appreciate sound, speech, and music, while minimizing any unnecessary background noise.

“Noise exposure tends to damage the hair cells at the base of the cochlea [the spiral cavity of your inner ear] which results in high frequency hearing loss,” says Kim. Since most of the consonants we speak in English require high frequency hearing to understand, “this has a significant impact on one’s ability to understand conversations,” Kim adds.

Long or repeated exposure to sounds at or over 85 decibels (think heavy city traffic) can bring on what’s called noise-induced hearing loss.

Your brain becomes inflamed

In recent years, experts have discovered that loud noise can hurt more than your ears. “It can damage the delicate nerve endings that transfer the electrical information from the hair cells [inside your ear] to your brain, potentially causing inflammatory reactions within the brain itself,” says Kim. As a result, there’s growing evidence that hearing loss may be linked to a loss of cognition, such as dementia.

Your mood darkens

Imagine having to work in an office with a smoke alarm that’s constantly going off. You’d end the day in a foul mood. The same is true if you work anywhere there’s unwanted noise trusted source you can’t escape. “Irritability and anxiety worsen in noisy environments,” Agarwal says. “It creates more mental ‘background noise’ which can make calming techniques or identifying triggers for anxiety more difficult.”

Your immune system weakens

It’s not like you hear a truck backfire and instantly catch a cold. “But indirectly, your overall quality of life may be impacted [by noise] which affects your overall well-being,” says Kim.

Remember that “stress hormone”? It increases your blood pressure and blood sugar, while decreasing your body’s ability to fight off disease. Some experts believe it doesn’t matter what triggers it into production. Be it noise pollution or some other part of your life, the effects are likely the same: an uptick in infections and colds. Chronic health issues like diabetes and stomach ulcers are also stress-related.

Your focus goes out the window

It’s no coincidence that you crave peace and quiet when you’re trying to study. If you’re in a loud environment, “your brain has to filter out loud noise for you to… concentrate,” says Kim. That extra work steals precious energy away from more important tasks, such as focus and problem-solving.

One Swedish study found that people who worked in a noisy open-floor office remembered fewer words when given a basic memory test. (They also rated themselves as more tired and less motivated to work than those who listened to peaceful river sounds.)

You’ll find it harder to get a good night’s rest

This may be stating the obvious, but it bears repeating: “Too much noise can be distracting and stimulating to the brain, making it more difficult to get into a mode of relaxation and ultimately fall asleep,” says Agarwal. And outside noise in particular impedes the quality of your sleep once you do drift off. That will do far more than make you groggy the next day. Poor sleep is linked to long-term health consequences like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

You may find it harder to have a baby

“Noise pollution or loud noises may affect male fertility, but it’s unclear exactly why,” says Agarwal. What does seem clear is that a huge cacophony isn’t required. Scientists at Seoul National University found that men who were exposed to relatively low levels of noise — like that of an air-conditioner — for eight years were more likely to be diagnosed with infertility. Women are at risk, too. Night time noise exposure’s been linked to miscarriage, premature birth, and birth defects. How do I reduce noise at work?

There are many ways of reducing noise and noise exposure - often a combination of methods works best. First think about how to remove the loud noise altogether. If that is not possible, do all you can to control the noise at source, consider redesigning the workplace and reorganising working patterns. Consider the following:

  • Use a different, quieter process or quieter equipment, eg:

  • Can you do the work in some other quieter way?

  • Can you replace whatever is causing the noise with something that is less noisy?

  • Introduce a low-noise purchasing policy for machinery and equipment.

Introduce engineering controls:

  • Avoid metal-on-metal impacts, eg line chutes with abrasion-resistant rubber, and reduce drop heights.

  • Vibrating machine panels can be a source of noise - add material to reduce vibration ('damping').

  • Isolate vibrating machinery or components from their surroundings, eg with antivibration mounts or flexible couplings.

  • Fit silencers to air exhausts and blowing nozzles.

Modify the paths by which the noise travels through the air to the people exposed, eg:

  • Erect enclosures around machines to reduce the amount of noise emitted into the workplace or environment.

  • Use barriers and screens to block the direct path of sound.

  • Position noise sources further away from workers.

Design and lay out the workplace for low noise emission, eg:

  • Use absorptive materials within the building to reduce reflected sound, eg open cell foam or mineral wool.

  • Keep noisy machinery and processes away from quieter areas.

  • Design the workflow to keep noisy machinery out of areas where people spend most of their time.

Limit the time spent in noisy areas - every halving of the time spent in a noisy area will reduce noise exposure by 3 dB.

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