Noise in the kitchen tops recommended level

Clanging and churning as loud as a rock concert

Dishes are churning in the dishwasher, metal utensils are clanging against pots, the radio is blaring, and someone is running the blender and an electric can opener. The noises in a hospital kitchen can be a cacophony as loud as a rock concert. But do they add up to an occupational hazard?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted a Health Hazard Evaluation in the kitchen of the Cincinnati VA Medical Center and found exposures that exceeded the NIOSH recommended limit (REL) — although not the permissible levels set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The noise came in loud bursts that weren't sustained. But dosimetry showed that a cook and food service workers in the pot and pan room and dishwasher room has exposures that exceeded the NIOSH recommended limit.

"Even though the time it takes to do these things is short — it only takes 20 seconds to puree something — but if you do it 10 or 12 times a day, it can add up to the [REL] noise level," says Chandran Achutan, PhD, an industrial hygienist with NIOSH in Cincinnati.

For example, the clanging of china on china in the dishwashing room measured 97 db, or about as loud as a motorcycle. When the pulper, which removed water from food waste and chopped it up to compact it for disposal, and a dishwasher ran at the same time, the sound was 110 db, or as loud as a rock concert. The noise of stainless steel pans hitting the metal racks measured 94 db and the blenders measured 96 db.

For some employees, that added up to a significant exposure. When considered against a daily noise limit, they exceeded their recommended dose, says Achutan. "Some people exceeded 100%, even if they only worked 3½ hours," he says. "If they were doing the same work for eight hours, they may get 200% dose."

No symptoms reported

None of the employees reported any symptoms from noise exposure. In fact, food service managers had requested the evaluation; it was not related to employee complaints. The Nutrition and Food Services Department had recently installed a new PowerSoak continuous dishwashing system, and the managers were concerned about its noise levels.

By itself, the PowerSoak turned out not to be a significant problem, measuring 77 db. "Whether employees are complaining or not, it's worth making some kind of hazard assessment," says Ron Sollberger, CHMM, HEM, CHSP, safety specialist with the Cincinnati VA Medical Center.

The hospital has already adopted some of the NIOSH recommendations. "We don't have an overexposure. We're not exceeding the OSHA standard," Stollberger says. "But we're still choosing to make these changes to improve the work environment."

Although the noise isn't high enough to threaten someone's hearing, it could add to work stress and cause people to feel irritable or anxious, says Stollberger.

The metal racks that hold the pots are being replaced with a fiberglass version. The hospital plans to move or partially enclose the blenders to block some of the noise. The radio is being turned down. The pulper is being replaced with a garbage disposal.

"We're going to ask for noise documentation on that from the manufacturer to make sure we're not bringing in something that's noisier than a pulper," says Stollberger.

The changes will reduce the noise exposure of employees. But it won't eliminate the potential for too much noise — especially for those employees who walk around wearing ear buds and listening to loud music on an IPod.

(Editor's note: A copy of the Health Hazard Evaluation is available at www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2007-0183-3047.pdf.)