The creation of an ideal sound environment can shift radically depending on how the space is to be used and by whom. The target soundscape of a private residence, school, office, or hospital will differ greatly from that of a factory, construction site, airport, or train station, for example.
This simple but crucial reality has important ramifications for the work that architects, engineers, and landscape designers do every day. Aligning the quality of the soundscape isn’t only about optimizing inhabitants’ experience of the space, it’s also about maximizing the space’s utility while protecting the short and long-term well-being of those who use it, as well as complying with various regulating agencies' safety standards.
This article examines the critical issue of compliance in acoustic design and explores the impact of these standards on stakeholders.
The Necessity of Regulation
Sound mitigation treatments are nothing new. Modern acoustic design has evolved over the course of more than a century to protect occupants from prolonged and/or excessive noise exposure and, consequently, to shield them from the noise pollution that can cause hearing damage and eventually hearing loss in addition to a wide array of associated mental and physical health impacts. There is mounting evidence, for example, that environmental noise exposure significantly increases one’s risk for developing depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairments, and certain forms of cancer–and the list goes on (1, 2, 3, 4).
Indeed the evidence of the profound implications of a sound environment for human health and productivity is clear. It’s little wonder, then, that industry regulators and state, federal, and international agencies alike have invested deeply in the development of robust, evidence-based standards and regulations.
There is, however, often wide divergence in acoustic design standards between industries, just as there are typically significant variations within them. As has already been seen, comfortable, safe, and productive sound environments are not determined by a single, monolithic standard. They’re defined by the space’s intended use and its typical occupant.
There is a wide spectrum between the ideal sound environment and the required sound environment.
For stakeholders involved in acoustic design, the significant variations that characterize a sound environment can make acoustic compliance a formidable challenge. However, it is possible for stakeholders and decision-makers to accurately define the acoustic standards that will define a space and promote its functionality, safety, and comfort for those who use it.
Understanding Safety Compliance Standards
Given the complexity of defining and engineering ideal sound environments for safety, comfort, and functionality, it is perhaps unsurprising that various industries and agencies have established their own particular standards aligned with their unique needs. Understanding the core compliance standards established by major state and federal agencies is imperative for those involved in sound mitigation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that noise over 85 dB is considered loud and potentially harmful. WHO recommends that average noise exposure levels remain at or below 70dB over 24 hours and 85 dB over a one-hour period to avoid hearing impairment.
In the US, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), a division of the CDC, has established clear parameters for defining unsafe noise exposure thresholds in the workplace based on eight-hour time-weighted averages.
NIOSH has found that occupational noise levels that exceed an average of 85 decibels per eight-hour day, five days per week, are unsafe, putting workers at risk for permanent, noise-induced hearing loss and other health harms. When noise levels rise above this threshold of 85 dBs, of course, then safe exposure time limits decrease.
OSHA follows these guidelines in creating regulations regarding noise levels. According to OSHA, employers must implement a hearing conservation program when noise exposure averages 85 dB or more over 8 hours (an 8-hour time-weighted-average).
Many governing agencies have outlined major noise exposure health and safety standards. Some examples are:
EPA: Recommended 55 dBs per 24-hour weighted average (TWA)
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA): 85 dB per 8-hour TWA
Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA): 90 dBa per 8-hour TWA, not to exceed 115 dB at any time
US Coast Guard: Recommended 77 dB(A) per 24-hour TWA
US Department of Defense (DoD): 85 dB(A) per 8-hour TWA
US Department of Transportation (DOT): Interior vehicle noise exposure must not exceed 90 dB(A)
In addition to the diverse standards and regulations of various government agencies, many US states have implemented statutes regulating noise exposure limits (NEL) in government buildings, public spaces, and private enterprises located in that state or territory.
The State of California, for instance, has implemented stringent guidelines for noise mitigation in state buildings, public spaces, schools, health systems, and workplaces. For example, California state statutes have implemented comprehensive guidelines for the frequency and quality of environmental sound monitoring.
Where noise exposure levels are found to exceed the established parameters, a host of corrective measures are triggered. Though exact specifications may vary slightly between agencies, the universal approach is two-pronged. The first prong is the activation of a comprehensive hearing conservation program. The second consists of engineering controls that include the installation of sound mitigation devices, such as sound-absorbing acoustic materials for the walls and ceilings.
In addition to defining acceptable noise exposure levels in public buildings, government spaces, and workplaces, state and federal agencies have also established clear guidelines for environmental sound monitoring. These are defined, principally, by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which shapes OSHA noise exposure levels statutes, and outlines quality controls for sound testing and sound testing equipment, including dosimeters, and for hearing protection devices, from ear muffs and plugs to acoustic installations.
More Than Safety At Stake
A gap often exists between what is required and what is ideal in the sound environment. Health and safety regulations are designed to protect individuals from short and long-term harm.
However, they do not necessarily enhance the experience or utility of a space. For example, OSHA’s 85 dB threshold, based on NIOSH parameters, may define the limit at which the general population is safe from noise-induced hearing loss. That boundary, though, doesn’t mean that one is creating a necessarily ideal space for productivity, communication, or cognition.
Simply put, those noise levels may be appropriate, acceptable, and functional for a machine shop or transportation hub. But, across the standard eight-hour time frame, such noise levels would be exceedingly disruptive and harmful in an office, school, hospital, or home.
This speaks to the inevitable complexity of designing a soundscape that is at once compliant with relevant regulations and attuned to the needs of the occupants and the purposes of the space.
The Benefits of Professional Assistance
As has been seen, there is far more to designing an ideal soundscape than simply ensuring that you’re falling below established regulatory thresholds. Sound environments must comply with the applicable safety statutes, yes, but if they are to be comfortable, safe, and functional, more is required.
Otherwise, stakeholders put themselves at significant risk for a host of potentially negative consequences. As has been seen, employees who work in less-than-ideal sound environments are at greater risk for significant physical and mental illness. This can lead to productivity loss, absenteeism, workers compensation claims, and higher health insurance premiums.
The severe and enduring impacts of prolonged noise exposure may also result in permanent noise-induced hearing loss. And the failure to take appropriate steps to protect workers, clients, and other stakeholders against these risks may even subject decision-makers to lawsuits.
Even when the harms do not rise to the level of lasting injury and the risk of legal liability, the simple reality is that a poor sound environment is uncomfortable and unproductive. Employees and clients alike are generally not disposed to linger long in noisy spaces where they feel anxious, distracted, and unwell.
Importantly, however, effective sound mitigation doesn’t just happen. Understanding the sound environment is often a far more difficult task than one might think. There are, for example, the inevitable challenges of accurately measuring decibel levels in a physical space. The science of sound is breathtakingly complex, and getting an accurate reading of sound levels in a space often requires the expertise of a trained acoustic engineer. Even professional-quality sound meters must be routinely recalibrated in a professional sound studio.
What this means, above all, is that when you’re attempting to create a sound environment for optimal safety, comfort, and utility, it’s often best to leave the testing and design to the experts.
How FSorb Can Help
At FSorb, we are proud to be the industry leader in innovative acoustic panels to create ideal sound environments for every space, including restaurants, healthcare facilities, schools, offices, factories, warehouses, and many more. Our eco-friendly sound mitigation solutions will help you meet and exceed rigorous regulatory standards, including OSHA statutes.
We are proud to offer a wide array of customizable sound mitigation solutions ideal for many environments, including government spaces, public buildings, private residences, and outdoor spaces. Our expert team of specialists is on hand to assist you in your next acoustic design project. Reach out to your local FSorb representative to learn more!
At FSorb, we are motivated by improving human health and do so by creating eco-friendly acoustic products. Our mission is to help designers build beautiful spaces that reduce excess ambient noise while calming the human nervous system. With over 25 years in the acoustic business we stand behind FSorb as a durable, environmentally friendly, and low-cost product. If you want an acoustic solution that is safe to human health at an affordable price, then we are your resource.