Keeping control of noise levels in your outlet

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Licensees risk police or local authority action and compensation claims from barstaff if they do not keep control of noise levels in their venue....

Licensees risk police or local authority action and compensation claims from barstaff if they do not keep control of noise levels in their venue. John Porter looks at ways to address the risk.

Most of us prefer a quiet life, so the fact that noise is suddenly high on the political agenda is likely to cause more than a few headaches for the pub trade. The police, local authority, your neighbours and staff all have rights under the law if they feel you are making an unreasonable amount of noise.

There have been a number of recent changes in the law, the most significant from the pub trade's point of view being the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, which came into force in December 2001. Pubs which become disorderly face instant closure for up to 24 hours under new police powers.

Noise caused by disorderly customers, whether on the premises or on the streets at closing time, is one of the biggest causes of complaints about pubs. Loud music is also a concern.

The National Society for Clean Air and Environmental Protection (NSCA) is urging the Government to consider a national noise strategy to help address late-night noise, but licensees fear it could lead to more objections from residents.

The NSCA found that complaints about pubs were on the increase in 51 per cent of the areas it surveyed and claims longer pub hours have aggravated the problem.

A national strategy is likely to require pubs to insulate premises more thoroughly. More than three-quarters of local authorities in England and Wales said they would support better sound insulation, a move which could prove costly for many publicans.


Acoustic consultant Shaun Murkett, a former sound engineer with rock star Peter Gabriel, is very aware of the problems pubs face. He says: "Too often, though, licensees come to me late in the day, when they already have a noise abatement order hanging over them.

"The deregulation of drinking hours has meant bars play music later at night - but most bars are not set up to be nightclubs and some of them leak noise like a rusty bucket."

When called in, Mr Murkett will start by carrying out an audit to assess where sound is breaking out of the building, measuring levels inside and out, as much as possible in a real situation when the bar is full and the music at its loudest.

Leaks might come through fans or gaps under doors or between floorboards. "Bare boards with gaps might be all the rage among designers but they are very poor acoustically."

Mr Murkett's report will recommend ways to control the noise. Windows and fans can be cheaply bricked up, of course, but other structural changes are more expensive. Most of his reports recommend a combination of structural work and setting a maximum volume to get a place through the objections - "usually a whole raft of compromises".

Courts will not readily accept a licensee's word on keeping the noise down - which has led to booming sales of a device known as a limiter. This is an automatic pilot for a sound system, putting a lid on the volume without distorting the music. Noise levels of more than 80 decibels can cause hearing problems and in most clubs these days you'll find volumes up to 120 decibels. Levels have risen as people have demanded that DJs and bands play it louder, creating a vicious circle.

The proposal to switch licensing to local authorities is likely to increase the pressure for noise limits. Local authorities already have responsibility for dealing with noise complaints, and can issue abatement orders if problems persist.

In many cases there is already a requirement to carry out a noise assessment in relation to the granting of a public entertainment licence. Assessments are also necessary to protect employees from excess noise.


The Noise at Work Regulations 1989 require an employer to assess his employees' exposure to noise at work, especially where the noise is likely to be above a certain level. The assessment must be made by a competent person who understands the levels that are acceptable. It is common for a disco to exceed these levels and you must ensure that you take all steps possible to reduce the risk of damage to the hearing of your employees.

Kelvin Williams, operations director for occupational health at international safety, health and environmental risk management specialists the National Britannia Group, said his staff are being called out more and more frequently by local councils to measure noise levels in pubs and clubs. Readings are regularly found to be well above the safe limits known as "action levels".

He warns that, unless employers manage this risk effectively, they could find themselves with compensation claims for tens of thousands of pounds for "industrial deafness".

Steps that can be taken include ensuring that all staff have an opportunity to get away from the loud music at regular intervals - rotate staff between noisy and quiet areas in order to give their ears a chance to recover.

You could also ensure that any speakers that are pointed towards the bar are turned down or disconnected so that the staff behind the bar are not in the loudest part of the room.

Employers can also issue discrete ear protectors. Contrary to popular belief, this may actually help barstaff to hear people ordering their drinks because protectors tend to block out general noise while enhancing the sound frequencies associated with speech.

Mr Williams said: "Noise may be part of the pub and club scene but there is enough evidence to show that many establishments are operating well above the noise action levels.

"Unless they adopt measures to protect staff they are leaving themselves seriously exposed to future claims."

How noisy is your pub?

Sound levels are measured in decibels (dB) - the decibel measures intensity of sound rather than loudness, since the scale of human hearing is so wide.

The smallest audible sound is 0 dB. A sound 10 times more powerful is 10 dB, a sound 100 times more powerful is 20 dB. So 30 dB is a sound 1,000 times more powerful than near total silence.

Much depends on how close you are to the sound, but as a rough guide:

0 db​threshold of normal, healthy hearing 30 db​near-empty bar 60 db​cross-bar conversation with customer one foot away 70 db​busy bar with no music playing100 db​bar with jukebox playing120 db​disco one foot from speaker

Related stories:

Trade celebrates as noise proposal is finally silenced (14 March 2002)

Trade leaders and MEPs to vote on noise legislation (11 March 2002)

Noise ban threat lingers on (28 February 2002)

European noise reduction proposals dropped (14 February 2002)

BBPA joins protest over European proposals to limit pub noise (4 February 2002)

European noise reduction proposals debated (25 January 2002)

Trade hits out at 'straight banana' proposal that could end pub music (17 January 2002)

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