Lab Safety: Is Your Environment Too Noisy?

lab-safety-noiseLabs are busy places. Filled with expensive equipment, all sorts of projects in process, and people to do the work; whether they are graduate students and research assistants to principal investigators, there’s a lot going on in the average lab. All that activity probably means there’s a lot of noise to contend with as well. Machines hum and vibrate, and colleagues converse—or shout to be heard over the din. Not only can these noises distract people from their work, but it also represent a significant lab safety issue.

Why Is Noise a Lab Safety Issue?

Anyone who has spent time at rock concerts or with their iPod volume turned up too high has probably experience the effects that excessive levels of noise can have on hearing. Noise in the workplace can have the same effect, or worse, since workers are usually there every day, not just spending a few hours listening to rock ‘n’ roll. This why there are Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) rules about workplace noise, as well as other elements of lab safety.

Noise also causes miscommunication. If someone in the lab has to shout to be heard over other noises, or the person being addressed is standing next to a noisy piece of equipment and can’t clearly hear or understand the speaker, it can lead to errors—or even lab accidents.

Excessive noise also hampers efficiency in the lab, especially if staff members are taking more workdays off because of the noise. Research has shown that excessive lab noise leads to headaches, earaches, anxiety, and other negative emotional states. In addition to their focus being potentially compromised, staff may also need to take sick time off to address these issues—which will simply resume once they return to work, further decreasing productivity.

What’s Too Noisy?

So how do you know if your lab is too noisy, and what can you do about it?

The human ear is a very sensitive instrument. It can detect amazingly soft sounds that have a power of as little as about 0.000000000001 watt per square meter. The sound threshold that causes pain, by contrast, is around one watt per square meter. The term “decibel,” which is one-tenth of a bel, refers to a logarithmic scale used for measuring the relative loudness of sounds. The baseline, 1 decibel, is a barely detectable sound, with each additional bel doubling the intensity of the sound. (Incidentally, the developer and namesake of this measurement technique was Alexander Graham Bell, whose wife was deaf. “Bell” was eventually shortened to “bel.”)

What this means, practically speaking, is that sounds are measured based on relative terms rather than physical effects. A whisper is around 20 decibels, while a thunderstorm is around 50, and a lawnmower or busy freeway is 85. Eighty-five decibels is the OSHA threshold for damage. However, because of the way sound travels through space, sounds under 85 decibels in one part of a lab may be experienced as significantly higher if the researcher’s lab bench is right next to the machine generating the noise for example.

What Steps Can You Take for Lab Safety?

If you suspect that your lab is too noisy to be safe, the best way to start addressing it is by having noise measurements taken. If you work with a large facility, arrange this with the staff member responsible for environmental health and lab safety. If there is no specialist on staff, there are agencies you can contact to come in and do the measurements.

Once you have the measurement data in hand, you can begin to address the issues. Some things are simple: For example, hold meetings elsewhere whenever possible. Others are more difficult. A mass spectrometer, for instance, is a crucial piece of lab equipment, but its roughing pumps generate a lot of vibration and noise. This is where specially made lab benches are the solution to lab safety. The IonBench is specifically designed to address noise issues, decreasing vacuum pump noise by 75%.

Your lab may be a busy place, but it doesn’t have to be a noisy one. Noise is dangerous in a lab environment, and specifically designed lab furniture can improve lab safety by reducing noise. Contact us today if you have questions or want to learn more about how dedicated lab furniture can improve lab safety and reliability in your laboratory.