Not So Silent Night

Author: Dhruv Muralidhar

Imagine that you traveled a year back in time. If you told someone on the street that, soon, the city with the world’s worst air quality would see a sudden, dramatic decrease in harmful particulates, you would be met with disconcertment. But it would nonetheless be true. There is no doubt that we are facing an unprecedented challenge. Amidst the horrendous cost to human life, the global economy, and the modern way of life, if there was one faint silver lining, it would be the short-term environmental benefits of lockdown. Since the lockdown began, ecologists have heard a strange phenomenon—the song of white-crowned sparrow flowing through the empty streets of San Francisco. Surprised by the magnitude, the ecologists noted that the calls of the sparrows improved in both quality and efficiency due to one key reason: the lack of anthropogenic noise, or in layman’s terms, noise pollution.  

The Truth You May Not Have Heard

We have become accustomed to the noisy world around us; it hardly fazes us anymore. The largest sources of noise pollution include automobile traffic, airplane traffic, and construction sites. These all seem like a part of everyday life, especially for those living in or near a city—annoying perhaps, but not worth sparing much thought. However, according to the World Health Organization, consistent exposure (the length of an average workday) to noises of 85 decibels (dB) or greater can result in hearing impairment. Putting that in context, heavy traffic can be anywhere from 80-89 dB, and a train or subway system is 90-95 dB. 

While hearing impairment is in the long run, this is not just a problem down the road. Noise pollution has been linked to headaches and high blood pressure, not to mention increased stress, anxiety, and depression. Humans are not the only ones affected either. Like the white-crowned sparrow, many birds have trouble communicating as their calls are no match for rush-hour traffic. According to National Geographic, many animals rely on sound to find mates and prey. The extraneous noise also disturbs the echolocation abilities of animals like bats, dolphins, and whales. In the case of the endangered blue whales, they face the risk of further population decimation as they are unable to locate food sources.

A Pitch to Corporate America

Having established the way noise pollution can impact people and the environment, it is time to discuss the ramifications to the business world. Let us begin with productivity. Iberdrola, the top producer of European renewable energy, says that noise above 45 dB has been shown to reduce sleep quality, inhibit the ability to focus, dampen short-term memory capacity, and increase aggressiveness. Workers impacted in such a way would understandably see their productivity in the workplace decline, resulting in lost time and money for their company. Another way noise pollution hits the bottom line is through mental health costs. As previously mentioned, prolonged exposure can result in increased levels of anxiety and depression, which costs the global economy $1 trillion per year due to lower productivity

While it is not as ubiquitous in the minds of people as other types of pollution, noise pollution is starting to gain awareness. As such, attempts to combat noise pollution on a corporate level will undoubtedly be seen favorably by consumers. Former Pacific Gas & Electric Company CEO, Richard Clarke, said in an interview that “a strong global economy is sustainable only if it integrates economic, social, and environmental well-being.” With 53% of global consumers saying they are more likely to buy from a company with “green” policies, being environmentally-conscious is becoming less of an option and more of a requirement in today’s marketplace. By acknowledging the issue and taking steps to mitigate noise pollution in their respective supply chains, companies can hope to earn brand capital and be seen as leaders in sustainability. 

The Sound Path Forward

There are several ways we can work to prevent the damage of noise pollution in the workplace and society at large. To protect workers during the day, OSHA recommends incorporating what it calls “administrative controls,” which reduce worker exposure to noise. Examples include operating loud machinery during less populated shifts and providing quiet spaces, such as sound-proof rooms, creating a brief reprieve for workers. It also suggests regular quality checks on office equipment to ensure that it does not become overly loud as it gets worn and damaged. Educating employees about noise pollution and the steps they can take provide them with the opportunity to do their part. Companies can reduce traffic-related noise pollution by incorporating natural sound barriers and vegetated surfaces and belts in their transportation and supply chains. While these measures may seem expensive in the short run, the increase in positive public perception and employee productivity (not to mention environmental benefits) makes them quite economical down the line.

A Shout Out to the Possible

The global marketplace is a busy world, with millions of companies and billions of consumers. In the hustle and bustle of things, it is easy to lose track of some of what makes living in this world so special. The environmental effects of lockdown are temporary, but our efforts have to be permanent. No matter your position in the business world, you can do your part, because when corporations and the people they serve work together, a world without unnecessary noise is within our reach. That is the sound of the future.

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