Music and Machinery–What Are the Problems

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about music and machines:

We are a workplace that has employees working with machinery. While operating the machinery employees like to listen to music and many times the music is louder than the machines. What are the cons in having the employees listen to music while working on machinery?

Signed, Ringing Ears

Dear Ringing Ears:

We are often asked about music at work. Employees usually want to know how to justify being able to listen to music or they complain about the choice of music. Employers usually are concerned about the potential negative effect on work or, as you mentioned, on safety. There is a particular concern when headsets are used, but I think you are referring to overhead music. Many people think that music lightens their attitude and their work. The kind of music a work group picks to listen to usually reflects their ages, backgrounds and away-from-work listening habits.

In one of my first jobs, working with two other teenagers to clean the only office building in my small hometown, my manager complained that we had to have music blaring to get anything done. He especially disliked the loud, modern stuff we were listening to. That was 1963 and we were listening to Del Shannon, Bobby Vinton, Andy Williams, The Four Seasons and The Beach Boys, among others! The Beatles didn’t hit until the next year, but I can imagine how he reacted to them!

Generally, if it is possible for employees to listen to music and do the work safely and accurately, allowing music is nearly always viewed as a positive management decision. If employees are accustomed to listening to music and no employees are complaining about it, there would have to be a very, very good reason to stop the practice without having employees become angry. This could result in subtle or not-so-subtle work disruption or reduction. However, as you noted, there are some “cons” to music when machinery operation is the primary work.

The potentially negative aspects don’t mean music has to be completely eliminated, but they might indicate a need to make some adjustments:

1. If employees need to communicate regularly about some aspect of work, blaring music combined with machinery noise can make that difficult. One manager said he noticed that some employees became frustrated when they couldn’t be heard and others seemed to not communicate at all rather than yelling questions or comments to coworkers.

2. There may also be the issue that such loud music subconsciously produces a level of stress, anxiety and aggressiveness. That would be hard to prove. But, some employees may feel those effects and not like the loud music, even though they don’t want to be the ones to complain. This situation about communication or about negative feelings about the music could not only have an effect on communication about work, it could also isolate employees to the point that there is no sense of working as a team or a shift. One way for supervisors to counteract that would be to have a brief huddle at the beginning of the shift just to say hello and provide any needed information, ask employees to share ideas or express concerns or just to thank them for their work and get things going for the shift. At least there would be an acknowledgement that there is a team concept, before people “zone out” with their work and the music.

3. If using the machine safely and effectively requires constant monitoring of the sounds produced by the machine as it works, anything that blocks that sound (headphones, earbuds or loud overhead music) could be a detriment to safety or to quality work. There isn’t a way to overcome that, except to lower the volume or, in the case of headphones and earbuds, require that they be taken off at specific intervals when the machinery needs to be checked.

4. This issue might also be hard to prove, but could be a long-term problem for employees: If the music is louder than the machinery, it is possible that the combined noise exceeds safety standards designed to protect hearing. You may want to consider using a noise measuring device to check the decibel levels throughout a shift and compare it against safe levels. You’d want to be careful about that, because you don’t want a disgruntled employee to think there is an OSHA violation to report. You may also want to check with other workplaces within your industry or business, to see how they handle the situation and if they have specific evidence or information that would be useful.

A practical solution, if you think the music is too loud, is to lower it just a tiny bit every few days. If that is noticed, you can say that your goal is to have it just loud enough to be heard, recognized and enjoyed, but not so loud as to be the only thing that can be heard. If they enjoy the music they probably know it well enough to mentally fill-in the gaps when the music is covered by machinery noise or by conversations. If you lower it in small increments over a period of a couple of weeks, you could probably lower it a couple of notches on the volume indicator without it being noticed. You may also want to make the effort to adjust the volume as needed. You might start the shift with louder volume to energize everyone, then lower it slightly as they work more. Or, do the reverse and start with a slightly lower volume, then increase it as they become more fatigued and could use an energizer. Whatever you decide to do, make sure there is solid support for changes from those above you. But, unless there is a clear reason to make significant changes and if things have been generally going well, you will probably be better off just making small adjustments over time rather than making big changes all at once. Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what you decide and what are the results.

Tina Lewis Rowe