The Sound of Silence: Hazards of a Noisy Workplace (and a Noisy Life)!

Noise is ubiquitous and not something we typically think of in our day-to-day life.

But, from early morning to late at night we are inundated with noise.    On the drive to work we start the day with horns honking and car radio or headset blasting music.  At work we face the constant hum from fans, machinery and equipment; not to mention the meetings, discussions and chit-chat at the office.  Pretty much everywhere we go we hear people shouting into phones and elevator music being played in every mall, gas station and elevator!.  Then, we get home, turn on the TV or listen to music to relax.

From an HSE perspective, we are aware of the potential damage to hearing from high levels of acute and chronic noise exposure.  The means to protect workers from hearing damage are well known.   As such, I am not going to review noise safety here as you can find thousands of informative sources online, e.g. OSHA's Occupational Noise Exposure Overview

Rather, I am going to provide a brief summary of a recent and very interesting article published in Nautilus, by Daniel A. Gross - This Is Your Brain on Silence.  The original article is well worth reading.  But, in any case I present below some highlights from Gross' article.

Health Impacts of Chronic Noise Exposure

  • In the mid 20th century, epidemiologists discovered correlations between high blood pressure and chronic noise sources like highways and airports.
  • Later research seemed to link noise to increased rates of sleep loss, heart disease, and tinnitus.
  • People who live in consistently loud environments often experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.
  • In 2011, the World Health Organization concluded that the 340 million residents of western Europe annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise and that 3,000 heart disease deaths were, at their root, the result of excessive noise.

These studies are all form what I would consider low noise environments compared to many cities such as Bangkok.  Imagine then, imagine what these studies would have reported if they were done in large cities in the developing world, where noise levels are vatly higher than in Europe or US.

Benefits of Silence

  • A study of study of the physiological effects of music, showed that two-minute silent pauses proved far more relaxing than either “relaxing” music or a longer silence played before the experiment started; silence seemed to be heightened by contrasts.
  • This finding of the benefits of contrasts has been supported by studies done on the brains of mice during short bursts of sound. The onset of a sound prompts a specialized network of neurons in the auditory cortex to light up. But when sounds continue in a relatively constant manner, the neurons largely stop reacting.
  • Further studies on mice showed that two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses.
  • In the absence of a sensory input like sound, the brain remains active and dynamic.
  • Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in.  

So, silence has multiple benefits for relaxation, brain development, and conscious thinking. 

Take a Quiet Break!

The take-home message here is that silence truly is golden. Do what you can to take short silent breaks during the day - even a two minute break has measurable benefits.  Once in a while, find a quiet place, turn off the phone, the TV, the computer and read a book or meditate.  You will benefit!


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Photo Credits:  Silence image courtesy of Cheryl Empey at  www.freemimages.com

Randall D. Shaw, Ph.D.
Managing Director at Redlog Environmental Ltd.
Dr. Randall Shaw is Managing Director of Redlog Environmental Ltd. He has a wide-ranging background in health, safety and environment, with a focus on those HSE issues faced by industry in Asia. Dr. Shaw’s blog posts on HSE issues in Asia are based on his experience from working in more than 30 countries, his pragmatic approach to solving HSE problems, and his desire to pass on this knowledge to others. Ultimately, his goal is to help HSE professionals and companies active in the developing world tackle their HSE issues. You can find him on Twitter (@RedlogHSE) and LinkedIn and he is always keen to discuss HSE issues with others.
Posted in Asia, HSE, Industrial Hygiene, Middle East, Worker Safety and tagged , .

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