DennisBeaverApril 24, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Last week we began our look into something that is upsetting to people who both dine in and work at restaurants, bars and clubs: Ear-piercing levels of noise, so loud as to be classified as a health risk with prolonged exposure.

Today, we’ll explain why restaurants are noisier than in the past, what steps can be taken to lower the levels and what hospitality industry workers need to know. But first, a brief explanation of decibels – how sound is measured.

Every 10-decibel increase doubles the sound

Dr. Tom Thunder heads Chicago-based Acoustic Associates, and is both an audiologist and acoustic engineer. He testifies frequently as an expert in the area of environmental and occupational noise. I asked him to explain what the numbers mean when we talk about decibels:

“Sound is measured in decibels, (db) with 60 db being normal conversation. For every 10 db increase, the loudness is doubled. In a restaurant, from 60 to 65 is good, and above that, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand normal speech. For restaurant or bar workers – especially with loud DJ music or live – above 85 decibels, over time, this impacts hearing and health. If co-workers need to shout at each other in order to be heard, they are at risk of permanent hearing loss.”

“There are more complaints about noise in general, and restaurants specifically, because the baby boom generation is experiencing hearing loss. A restaurant should address noise during the design stages, and if correctly done, customers will have no idea that an acoustic treatment was designed in. When owners wait until customers stop coming, it becomes much more expensive and difficult to remedy,” he points out.

Restaurant noise 911 emergency

Even then, a restaurant or bar owner who cares about customers and staff can do a great deal to reduce the noise. Just ask Minneapolis-based Mark Rustad.

As president of Net Well Noise Control Services, he often receives “911 emergency” calls from management who suddenly realize their customers are walking out because of the noise. “We teach them how to greatly lower the noise, for example, with ceiling clouds, which capture echo and bring a 70- to 80-decibel room down to 60,” he explained.

He agrees with Thunder, that design is key. “Anytime you have marble, glass, wood or tile-leaving surfaces which are reflective – they do not absorb a thing. A room which is not conditioned for acoustics creates echo. From the neighborhood sandwich shop to elegant, high end, fine dining restaurants, today everything is designed for appearance and cost cutting. Sadly, designers rarely take into account the consequences of these decisions which make it look pretty, but which often discourages repeat business when the customer is turned off.”

Recommendations for restaurant and bar workers

For anyone who owns or works in a noisy restaurant, bar, or club-and is often exposed to levels over 85db-hearing can eventually be affected. The louder the noise-more decibels-the shorter is a “safe” exposure. Responsible employers need to determine what sound levels employees are being exposed to.

As what’s loud to one person may be acceptable to someone else, the only way to establish a useful, explicit data point is by using an accurate sound level meter-something ideally which meets Type 2, industrial standards.

Historically these devices cost hundreds of dollars, but You and the Law found one manufacturer that has recently come out with two meters, one with a price tag of $169 which is Type 2 approved, and the other for only $89. That company is Extech Instruments of Waltham, Mass. (

We had a chance to test the $169 meter and compared it with those costing many times as much. It was just as accurate. Extech’s Global P.R. Manager, André Rebelo explained that having an accurate way to establish decibel levels can be important for other reasons:

“Over the last several years, noise laws have been upgraded around the country to have specific thresholds above which noise levels are illegal. Law enforcement is out measuring – so to be a good citizen, as well as a way of defending yourself if cited for a violation of a noise ordinance – it only makes sense to know in advance just how loud your business really is.”

Reports to Cal/OSHA by employees are confidential

The law requires employers to offer hearing protection or to take other measures when employees are subject to dangerous sound levels. Complaints to Cal/OSHA from employees are confidential if the employee desires, and will be investigated, normally, in a matter of days.

In a future report, we will look into the types of hearing protection on the market, from passive earmuffs, to highly advanced electronic devices.

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