Noisy restaurants have implications well beyond irritated customers who can’t hear what their companions are saying. They pose potential occupational health and safety pitfalls for restaurant owners and their staff.
The look and feel of a restaurant is usually driven by what owners think their customers want.
And a lively, vibrant atmosphere – which may also be a noisy atmosphere – is often seen as a drawcard, according to Roslyn Grundy, co-editor of the Good Food Guide.
“Even the more conservative places are actively cultivating that loud, buzzy, crowded kind of feel,” she says.
But for staff, the decibels that often go with it can be a pain in the ears, quite literally.
In most states of Australia, 85 decibels (dB) is the WorkCover safe noise level limit at which employees can complete an eight-hour shift without wearing ear protection.
Exposure for longer periods can lead to irreversible hearing damage.
According to studies done by the National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL) busy restaurants can register noise in the mid to high 80 dB range, some for long periods of time.
It’s the equivalent of having to shout to someone who’s sitting a meter away from you, in order to be heard; something that simple noise reduction treatments, like Knauf’s acoustic ceiling and wall products, can go a long way to addressing.
What’s in a decibel?
60 dB: normal conversation
65 dB: vacuum cleaner
85 dB: noisy restaurant (hearing damage can occur after 8 hours’ exposure)
100 dB: chain saw (hearing damage can occur after 15 minutes’ exposure)
91 dB: ride on lawn mower (hearing damage can occur after 2 hours’ exposure)
Source: Australian Hearing
“Noise is an important problem for both the dining public and our members,” Louise Tarrant, National Secretary of the hospitality union, United Voice, told Fairfax Media last year.
“Noise has escalated with the rise in minimalist (décor in) restaurants and we’re concerned that restaurant owners aren’t taking the problem seriously because they even want to increase the allowable noise levels,” she said.
In 2011 Restaurant and Catering Australia, the peak industry body representing restaurants, cafes and caterers, lodged a submission with Fair Work Australia requesting that the recommended levels of exposure to noise be lifted from 85 dB over an 8-hour day to 100 dB (the equivalent of standing near an angle grinder).
The group’s chief executive, John Hart, says it reflected the fact that, “it’s virtually impossible to operate below 85 dB during a full service period.”
He argues that because wait staff are on and off the floor, they never reach eight hours’ exposure.
But according to Warwick Williams, senior researcher at the National Acoustic Laboratories, even if the safe WorkCover limits are not breeched, sustained exposure to noise can cause emotional and psychological problems.
“People feel worn down by constant exposure to high levels of noise,” he said. “That mental strain can be significant.”
That could have potential implications for restaurant owners beyond OH&S regulations, including higher staff turnover.
For more information on restaurant design, and how to design restaurants with better acoustics, download the guide to Acoustic Design for Restaurants.