Pleasant sounds, annoying noise
Noise is usually defined as any disturbing sound. In practice, it is referred to as 'sound' when pleasant and 'noise' when annoying. Noise within the workplace can originate from internal and external sources. Internal noise sources include equipment, people and background noise from within the building and surrounding environment. External noise sources can include road traffic and general industrial noise.
Background noise generally goes unnoticed unless there is a malfunction of equipment. In some circumstances, some background noise is desirable because an absolutely quiet environment can be uncomfortable.
Why noise control is important
Noise in office areas is unlikely to be of levels known to pose a risk to hearing. In offices, noise is likely to be an annoyance and may interfere with communication, distract employees and affect their performance of tasks such as reading and writing.
Employers have a duty under the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations) to make sure noise levels are safe. Employers must investigate an employee's exposure to noise if, based on reasonable grounds, there is uncertainty about whether the employee is or may be exposed to noise that exceeds the noise exposure standard. Uncertainty can arise when noise in the work environment is variable, there are multiple sources of noise and the duration of an employee's exposure varies.
WorkSafe's Compliance Code: Noise also has information about noise exposure levels.
Noise can be costly for an organisation. Noise that prevents a person from understanding an instruction or warning signal may also be a safety risk. For these reasons, it is important employers consider what they can do to control unwanted noise in the office.
Some privacy during conversations is necessary, particularly in open-plan offices. Privacy requirements should be built in at the design stage of the office layout, when the distance between employees and orientation of workstations is being decided. Employees should be able to have telephone conversations and perform work without the person next to them listening to every word.
Partitions can provide privacy between workstations. Using partitions involves considering the design of the whole office environment, including the size, construction and continuity of partitioning and all other surfaces in the office.
Seek expert advice when designing partitioning to provide speech privacy. For further information, refer to the Australian Standard AS 2822-1985 (R2016): Acoustics - Methods of Assessing and Predicting Speech Privacy and Speech Intelligibility.
Identifying disturbing noise in the office
To identify disturbing noise sources in an office it is best to ask the employees working in the area a series of questions. For example:
- what noise is most disturbing, if any?
- when does it occur?
- what effect does it have?
- how do you deal with disturbing noise?
A general walk-through survey interviewing employees can identify noise in the office.
Where noise issues are a problem in an office environment, employers should undertake an assessment and develop noise control measures. It may be necessary to consult a qualified person if specialist assessment or advice is required.
Controlling noise in the office
Employers must, so far as reasonably practicable, provide and maintain a workplace that is safe and without risks to health. Employers should develop noise control measures in line with the hierarchy of control. The hierarchy of control ranks methods of controlling risks, from the highest and most effective level of protection to the lowest and least effective. Eliminating the risk is the highest level of control, followed by reducing the risk through substitution, isolation and engineering controls, then reducing the risk through administrative controls. Reducing the risk through the use of protective personal equipment is the lowest level of control. The WorkSafe website has information about the hierarchy of control.
The OHS Regulations and Compliance Code: Noise can also help develop noise control measures.
Employers who need to control noise in an office environment could, for example:
- use a layout which separates noise-making activities or equipment from tasks requiring concentration
- isolate noisy equipment such as printers or photocopiers by placing them in separate rooms
- use sound-absorbent materials, including suitable floor coverings, wall panels, ceiling panels and dividing screens. When installing barriers, take into account the effect barriers may have on ventilation and any sense of isolation they may cause with staff
- provide acoustic-grade dividing screens to reduce conversation noise. Studies have found that partitions need sound absorbing panels at least 1600mm high to have any effect on the transfer of sound between workstations. The panels need to be used with other sound-absorbing surfaces – floors, walls and ceilings – to be effective. In an open-plan office you can allow communication between workstations by using 1200mm-high partitions between employees and 1600mm between work sections
- select equipment with the lowest noise specifications practicable
- install noise barriers, including double-glazed windows, solid walls and fences to reduce external noise sources
- lower the volume setting on a disruptive telephone. This is a simple way to reduce existing noise levels
- adopt administrative controls such as encouraging employees to have conversations in meeting areas away from work areas
- use masking sound. Masking sound is electronically generated background noise deliberately introduced to mask or cover intrusive noises. However, it is best to control unwanted noise rather than try to mask it. Masking is generally an unsatisfactory way of dealing with unwanted noise. It may be necessary to consult an expert on this issue
- place workstations so one employee does not use the phone in a direct line to the ear of the employee at the next workstation
Where noise is an identified hazard, follow the OHS Regulations to identify, assess and control excessive noise levels. The Compliance Code: Noise will also help employers comply with the OHS Regulations.
The Australian Standard AS 2107:2016 Acoustics - Recommended Design Sound Levels and Reverberation Times for Building Interiors has guidelines on appropriate noise levels for particular work environments.
Your legal duties
The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, including psychological health, so far as reasonably practicable. This responsibility includes providing and maintaining safe systems of work and an obligation to consult with employees and health and safety representatives (HSRs) on matters that directly affect or are likely to affect their health or safety.
Employees also have duties under the OHS Act to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, the health and safety of people in the workplace and to co-operate with their employer.
Find out more about office work and your legal obligations on the WorkSafe website page, The Risk Management Approach to Health and Safety. A link to the page appears in Related information.
- AS 2822-1985 (R2016) Acoustics - Methods of Assessing and Predicting Speech Privacy and Speech Intelligibility.
- AS 2107:2016 Acoustics - Recommended Design Sound Levels and Reverberation Times for Building Interiors.
The risk management approach to health and safety
Identifying hazards in the office
Developing a health and safety policy
Physical factors in office work
Office work and mental health
Thermal comfort and air quality in offices
Office layout and design
Office workstation design
Choosing and using office chairs
Health and safety with keyboards, the mouse and other pointing devices
Telephones and mobile phones
Different types of office work
Using office equipment safely
Working with computers
Storage and moving systems
General office health and safety
Exercises for office employees
Using copiers, printers and similar equipment
Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004External link
Legislation Victoria: Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017External link
Occupational health and safety – your legal duties
Noise: Safety basics
Compliance code: Noise
Compliance code: Workplace amenities and work environment
Getting help to improve health and safety: A handbook for employers
Standards AustraliaExternal link
Safe Work AustraliaExternal link