DennisBeaverJanuary 31, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver

“I am writing behalf of myself and co-workers at a restaurant and night-club in a California Central Valley town where your column is widely read.

“We are constantly exposed to insanely loud music, the idea of our new manager, wanting ‘to have a livelier atmosphere.’ It is so ‘lively’ that several of us are experiencing ringing in our ears, sometimes after just an hour or two on the job.

“Because there is no carpeting or other acoustic treatment, often it is so noisy that employees have to shout at each other in order to be heard. It feels like your head is in a metal trash can and someone is banging on it!

“We have all embarrassingly messed up beverage and food orders because it was not possible to understand the customer.

“Our requests to lower the volume and have sound-dampening material installed were refused, the manager curtly telling us: “Bars are noisy and customers want a loud environment. If you don’t like it, then find a job elsewhere. But don’t worry, it isn’t so loud as to harm your hearing. You’ll get used to it.”

“Is he right? We would all appreciate your comments and some direction. Thanks, Kim.”

Need to shout? Your hearing is at risk

Does Kim and her co-workers have anything to worry about, or if unhappy, should they just find a job elsewhere? What are the indications that occupational noise is loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage? Are there legal protections for workers in noisy environments?

For answers, You and the Law spoke with one of the nation’s foremost experts on hearing conservation, Indianapolis-based Elliott Berger, division scientist for the 3M Personal Safety Division. For over 35 years, Berger has studied hearing protection and authored numerous articles and textbook chapters.

“An employee in this situation is describing occupational exposure to what we refer to as potentially hazardous levels of noise which can cause permanent hearing loss,” Berger stated, adding, “and your reader’s comments highlight two often found consequences of exposure to dangerous levels of noise which over-stress nerve cells in the inner ear.

  • Shouting in order to be heard at arm’s length, and;
  • Ringing in the ears after you leave the noise and are in quiet surroundings.

“Potentially hazardous noise means that you have been exposed to a sound level of 85 decibels or more for at least 8 hours on a consistent basis. When this occurs, it may result in permanent hearing loss for a portion of the population unless hearing protection devices are worn,” he stressed.

“Examples of 85 decibels would include a gas lawn mower, a noisy vacuum cleaner and many hair dryers.”

Risks not well known but Disney protects its employees

“The sad occupational reality is a failure to understand the risks or know what is needed to safeguard hearing. One admirable employer is the Disney Corporation, as its theme parks provide hearing protection to employees in bar and music entertainment areas,” Berger points out.

Even the CDC–Centers for Disease Control–are paying attention to what they call Music Induced Hearing Loss, and have stated that everyone who works at a night club is at risk–bartenders, security, wait staff–not just the DJ. In a 2013 study, they found noise levels to exceed 95 decibels, sometimes reaching 108 decibels, and at these levels, hearing protection is mandatory under federal law.

When government agencies charged with enforcing the law sit on their hands, hearing-aid companies are thrilled. In our opinion, the California Department of Industrial Relations (CalOsha) is completely deaf when it comes to noise issues concerning bars and nightclubs.

Information they provided You and the Law revealed no reported action taken against a single bar or nightclub for excessive noise in the past several years.

Dangerous levels of noise exposure more common today

“The opportunity for not just employees–but members of the general public–to be exposed to potentially dangerous high sound levels is far more common now than ever before,” Berger points out, citing the “readily available powerful amplification equipment used today at rock concerts, recreational activities — even weddings — creates loud sounds with a greater potential to damage hearing,” he stated, and then asked what these four things have in common:

  • A monster truck rally;
  • A basketball game in an arena with 18,000 screaming fans;
  • Using a chainsaw;
  • A rock concert.

“They all generate sound levels above 95, a chainsaw and rock concert coming in at 105 decibels, and some basketball game in enclosed arenas have been measured at well over 115 decibels.”

Protect yourself before trouble starts

For anyone about to begin a job in a noisy environment, or who has ever worked in one, then next week’s story will be of special interest as we look at noise-related workers compensation claims and hearing loss prevention.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.