Noise, or "unwanted sound," is becoming a common problem in all industries, especially healthcare.
Thousands of people in all types of work settings experience hearing damage each year. In the United States, it is believed that of the 28 million Americans who suffer some degree of hearing loss, nearly one-third have been affected, at least in part, by noise.
Unexpected high noise levels have been reported to cause a variety of symptoms. Symptoms during exposure include discomfort and pain. In the few minutes after the exposure, symptoms include shock and nausea. Occurring for some time after the exposure are headaches, nausea, tenseness, and hypersensitivity (discomfort) to loud sounds that would previously have caused no problems.
Exposure to high levels of noise can not only cause hearing loss but also create physical and psychological stress, reduce productivity, interfere with communication, and contribute to accidents and injuries.
The University of Houston (Texas) recently conducted a study to evaluate noise's environmental effects on the healthcare industry specifically. The study found the following:
- Persistent noise levels of 100 decibels (dB) resulted in a serious reduction in alertness and attention and caused temporary hearing loss.
- Levels of 90 to 95 dB produced hearing loss as well, along with skill and task errors and speech difficulty.
- Noise levels from 70 to 85 dB—about the level of most commercial vacuum cleaners—interfered with normal and telephone conversation and made it difficult to think.
It was not until work-related noise levels were at approximately 60 to 65 dB that the working environment was rated as "good" and acceptable.
Is Cleaning a Noise Issue?
Many in the cleaning industry are concerned about how loud some janitorial equipment is and its impact on building occupants and cleaning workers. According to Ron Goerne, cleaning consultant and former president of Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI), "Working with loud cleaning equipment for long periods of time causes fatigue among cleaning workers as well as office or healthcare workers. All our industry's efforts to improve productivity by mechanizing cleaning can be defeated because of noisy equipment."
And, it appears that cleaning equipment does contribute to noise pollution. In the University of Houston study mentioned earlier, approximately 300 healthcare staff members reported that the most bothersome noises came from the following:
- Cleaning equipment
- Intercoms and door buzzers
The study found that vacuum cleaners, floor machines, and carpet extractors average 80 to 85 dB. This noise level makes thinking difficult, interferes with conversation, and approaches levels that can cause hearing loss.
Addressing the Noise Issue
"Some manufacturers are now beginning to address the issues of noise and cleaning," says Goerne. "For instance, we are seeing vacuum cleaners designed with smaller and quieter but still efficient motors. And one manufacturer of no-touch cleaning equipment, Kaivac, has introduced machines with sound levels of less than 65 dB, about the level of a muffled dishwasher."
Along with specifically designing cleaning equipment to be quieter, there are other ways to help reduce cleaning's "noise" impact on the indoor environment in healthcare and other types of facilities. For instance:
- Replace liquid soap dispensers with foam dispensers because these products are quieter to use.
- Install touch-free towel dispensers, which tend to be quieter than traditional pull-down-lever dispensers.
- Lubricate wheels on carts and other cleaning equipment.
- Install rubber and/or vibration and sound-absorbing wheels on vacuum cleaners and extractors.
- Use canister-style vacuum cleaners, which are often considerably quieter than uprights.
As more manufacturers develop cleaning tools, equipment, and products that help reduce noise, it will likely become and industry trend. Says Goerne, "Simply put, cleaning equipment that produces less noise reduces fatigue and frustration and helps cleaning professionals perform their tasks more efficiently, which is what it is supposed to do."