If you’re a customer, you get to make noise; if you’re a worker, you don’t.

From today’s New York Times:

The waitress’s lips were moving but nothing seemed to be coming out. Hundreds of voices swallowed her words as a D.J. pumped out a ticka ticka of dance beats. The happy hour-fueled din rose with it, amplified by tin ceilings and tiled walls.

“I’ve been getting migraines,” the waitress shouted on a recent Thursday night, leaning in to be heard. She said that she woke up with her ears buzzing, and that her doctor had recently prescribed seizure medicine: “It decreases the amount of headaches you get.”

The restaurant, Lavo in Midtown Manhattan, is not just loud but often dangerously so. On that night, the noise averaged 96 decibels over the course of an hour, as loud as a power mower, and a level to which, by government standards, workers should not be exposed for more than three and a half hours without protection for their hearing.

Lavo is far from alone. Across New York City, in restaurants and bars, but also in stores and gyms, loud noise has become a fact of life in the very places where people have traditionally sought respite from urban stress. The New York Times measured noise levels at 37 restaurants, bars, stores and gyms across the city and found levels that experts said bordered on dangerous at one-third of them.

At the Brooklyn Star in Williamsburg, the volume averaged 94 decibels over an hour and a half — as loud as an electric drill. At the Standard Hotel’s Biergarten in the meatpacking district, where workers can log 10-hour shifts, the noise level averaged 96 decibels. No music was playing: the noise was generated by hundreds of voices bouncing off the metal skeleton of the High Line.

At Beaumarchais, a nightclub-like brasserie on West 13th Street, the music averaged 99 decibels over 20 minutes and reached 102 in its loudest 5 minutes. “It definitely takes a toll,” a waiter said.

Workers at these places said the sound levels, which were recorded over periods as long as an hour and a half, were typical when they were working.

Some customers like the loudness. Younger people can withstand loud music longer, while older ones may run from it, helping proprietors maintain a youthful clientele and a fresh image.

But repeated exposure to loud noise often damages hearing and has been linked to higher levels of stress, hypertension and heart disease. Some restaurateurs said they were surprised that their decibel levels were too high, and a few said they were taking remedial measures.

Indeed, employees at noisy places are often the most affected, yet enforcement of existing noise regulations is almost nonexistent at places like these.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is responsible for workplace noise, generally investigates only when complaints are made; this appears to happen rarely, if ever, when it comes to restaurants, bars and gyms (the agency said it would take 138 years to inspect every workplace in the United States). In the 2011 fiscal year, all of the 14 noise violations issued by OSHA in New York City went to construction sites or factories; none went to restaurants, clubs or bars. The city has a noise code, but in the cases of restaurants and bars, it applies only to music and thumping that annoy the neighbors.

OSHA requires workers to wear hearing protection if they are exposed to 90-decibel noise for eight hours; at 85 decibels, employers must provide ear protection and conduct hearing tests.

Many hearing loss prevention experts say, however, that people should not be exposed to 100 decibels — the level at the spin class on the Upper West Side — for more than 15 minutes without hearing protection.

“We definitely consider those levels able to cause damage and likely to cause permanent damage with repeated exposure,” said Laura Kauth, an audiologist and president of the National Hearing Conservation Association. “They’re experiencing industrial level noise.”

But at all the aforementioned places, there was nary an earplug in sight.

One waiter at Lavo, who, like several other workers, did not want his name published for fear of losing his job, said he knew his hearing could be in jeopardy. But, he reasoned, slight hearing loss was inevitable, since he had also played in a band. “When it happens, it happens,” he shrugged. “Hopefully by that time they’ll have better fixes for it.”

Brian McKinley, vice president for marketing at DMX, the sensory branding company that creates Abercrombie’s playlists, said the goal was to create an “aspirational” environment. Throbbing music and dim lights make youngsters feel as if they are in a club and entice them to stay longer.

“There’s a lot of studies out there showing that the more time spent in the store correlates to more items purchased,” Mr. McKinley said. An Abercrombie spokesman said in a statement that the company’s “unique A&F in-store experience is something that our customer wants.”

Several Abercrombie employees admitted to frequent headaches. One said she hid out in the stock room to get away from the noise.

“We can’t do anything about it,” said a sales clerk, who said she often left work with a throbbing head and a throat scratched raw by shouting. “They want it to be like a club in here.”

h/t Alex Gourevitch


  1. Jeremy Nathan Marks August 8, 2012 at 10:09 am | #

    Thank you for sharing this. I think Brian McKinley’s comments tell the tale: profit over people, once again.

  2. jonnybutter August 8, 2012 at 10:26 am | #

    The smoking bans being enacted around the country are of a piece with this. Libertarians and tobacco smokers (of which I used to be an enthusiastic one) hate the fact that you can’t smoke in bars – BARS of all places! But, for bartenders and waitstaff, working in a smoky bar was really quite dangerous over time.

    Those same libertarians and other conservatives cry a lot about nanny-state-ism, but never acknowledge that a little voluntary moderation would forestall a lot of this stuff. But that would involve admitting that a worker is a person, and not a machine or a mere means to an end. Too icky to *talk* in those terms, even though we LIVE on those terms.

    • Jeremy Nathan Marks August 9, 2012 at 10:18 pm | #

      I agree with you, voluntary moderation would do a lot.

      What doesn’t sit right with me about a lot of the things conservatives and libertarians says is that they seem to want to always champion the right to act free of responsibility (though many would deny this). It always seems like rights are presented by many on the political right as being only about the principle of possession and not about the responsibility of exercising them.

      • jonnybutter August 10, 2012 at 8:53 am | #

        Yes indeed. The ‘conservative’ postion has morphed into a sort of caricature of 1960s hippieism, i.e. freedom without responsibility. See an interesting little book I dug up about this sort of thing.

        • Jeremy Nathan Marks August 10, 2012 at 10:12 am | #

          I agree, it is a carciature. And I’ve read Robin’s book, it is quite good.

  3. ScS August 8, 2012 at 1:35 pm | #

    That’s from July 20.

  4. Peter Hovde August 8, 2012 at 7:30 pm | #

    “In the 2011 fiscal year, all of the 14 noise violations issued by OSHA in New York City went to construction sites or factories; none went to restaurants, clubs or bars.”

    Could it be that OSHA responds at least somewhat more seriously to violations in workplaces where the workers are represented by unions? (Just to be clear-not a slam on OSHA, per se, but a recognition of the need for more labor organization, and changes in law to make organizing easier).

  5. Chris Bertram August 10, 2012 at 2:54 am | #

    Having ventured into a couple of Abercrombie and Fitch stores in Chicago and New York to try to get something for a niece last year, I found it quite extraordinary. Not only was it so loud that you couldn’t hear people – which made trying to get over the UK/US linguistic differences wrt the garment in question (a gilet in UK English) difficult – but it was also extremely dark, so you couldn’t see properly.

    One of the interesting things about the article, though, is the declared willingness of some of the restaurant owners to moderate things when the problem was pointed out. This suggests that if resources were put into enforcement and education, the norms might change pretty quickly.

Leave a Reply