Right to Quiet Society Noiseletter
Winter 2010 – page 5

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Hospital wards break world health 'noise limits'

By Michelle Roberts, Health reporter,
BBC News

Busy hospital wards can be as loud as a lawnmower

Hospital wards across the Nation Health Service (NHS) are breaking recommended noise limits, disturbing patients' sleep, well being and recovery, experts say. Two separate studies found the din of chattering visitors and loud mobile phones pushed noise levels well over recommended limits.

The World Health Organization says patients should not be exposed to noise above 35 decibels or a loud whisper. But the UK researchers frequently recorded levels of 60 to 90dB. Researchers at Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton, found noise levels on an average general medical ward exceeded 60dB most of the time, even at night. Mobile phones came up time and again as an issue.

At the Newcastle teaching hospital, nurses recorded levels averaging in the mid 40s and peaking at nearly 100dB as loud as a lawnmower. Lead author Annette Richardson, a nurse consultant in critical care at New-castle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: "Hospitals can be very noisy places. Dropping a stainless steel bowl creates 108 dB, which is more than the 100 dB from a nearby car horn or chainsaw."

But it was mobile phones that were the real bugbear, as well as noisy visitors.

Both research teams looked at whether adopting simple measures could reduce noise levels. “It is bad enough when you are recovering from an illness in hospital. You at least expect some privacy and quiet,” said Michael Summers of the Patients Association.

They asked staff to make a number of changes, including wearing soft-soled shoes, switching mobile phones on to vibrate rather than ring and turning alarms on to "night mode" from the evening until the morning. Quiet-closing bins were also deployed and staff were encouraged to restrict visitors to designated times and


keep their own noise to a minimum when possible.

These measures in Newcastle reduced peak noise levels by around 20%, bringing them well below the 80dB threshold at which hearing can be damaged over time, the Journal of Clinical Nursing reports. And in Taunton, the time that noise levels breached 60dB at night fell from 75% to 59%. Patients also said they felt more rested and had better quality sleep.

"If everyone made a concerted effort—that applies to patients and staff—it could reduce noise levels and make wards more peaceful places," Summers said. Dr. Anna Hutchings led the Taunton research, which will soon be presented at a British Thoracic Society meeting. She said hospitals might think about introducing quiet zones, similar to those found on trains, and putting up posters to remind people to switch their mobiles to quiet settings.

"Mobile phones came up time and again as an issue. I don't think we could ask people not to bring them into hospitals, but we could think about how and where they are used," Dr. Hutchings said. Data from health regulator, the Care Quality Commission, show over the past few years nearly 40% of patients have been concerned about noise at night from other patients, and around 20% from staff.


  • For a good night's sleep, background sound level should not exceed 30dB and individual noise events should not exceed 45dB.
  • Ideally, patients should not be exposed to noise above 35dB.
  • Prolonged exposure to sounds over 80 dB can damage hearing.
  • Raising/lowering bed rail = 90dB, as loud as a lawn-mower.
  • Opening a packet of rubber gloves = 86dB, equivalent to shouting.
  • Dropping rubbish in a bin = 53 82dB, as loud as a busy street.


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Noise and Inattentiveness to Social Cues - study

By Sheldon Cohen and Anne Lezak, University of Oregon

Results from a variety of studies suggest that under conditions of arousal and/or information overload, attention is focussed on task relevant cues at the cost of those that are less relevant to task performance. The stimuli under consideration in these studies have been exclusively non-social.

To examine the effects of environmental stress on the processing of task irrelevant cues of a social nature, subjects performed a free recall task in which they were instructed to recall six nonsense syllables presented serially under either noise or quiet. In all conditions, slides of social


situations, each depicting either calm or distressed person(s), were presented just to the right of the nonsense syllables. After stimulus presentation, half of the subjects were given the expected recall test for nonsense syllables. The remaining subjects were instead given a recognition memory test for the peripheral social cues.

While noise did not affect memory for the task-relevant cues (nonsense syllables), task-irrelevant cues (social-cue slides), regardless of whether they depicted calm or distressed persons, were remembered less well under noise than under quiet.

— Environment and Behavior,
Vol. 9, No. 4, 559 572/1977

Quiet Dining

Restaurants where patrons are asked not to use their cellphones:

  • Provence <www.provencevancouver.com> (two locations)
  • The Observatory on Grouse Mountain <www.grousemountain.com>.

— K. Raab

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Entire contents © 2006 Right to Quiet Society. Cartoon © 1996 Right to Quiet Society

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