Headphones in the Shop

Here's a lively discussion about concentration, hearing loss, and whether it's okay for employees to listen to personal music on headphones in a cabinet shop. September 15, 2011

Am I just "old school", even though I'm only 47 years old, to not allow headphones (Ipods, etc.) in the shop? In my opinion we are here to work, not entertain ourselves and when I want to talk to an employee, I don't want to have to wait for them to turn it off, unplug it from their ears and then go through the process of re-wiring themselves when I walk away. We have a radio in the shop to break up the monotony of the grey noise and if you don't like what's on the radio, then too bad, get a job in a music store and you won't have to worry about it. What's the general consensus out there?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor W:
Our policy - no personal electronic devices of any kind in the shop, including cell phones. No radio in the shop either.

From contributor U:
We allow a radio in the assembly area. Machine room hearing protection is required so no headphones there anyway. The owner doesn't seem to have a big issue with headsets in the assembly area so I am forced to allow it. My take on it is that it is also a safety issue - having music blaring in their ears could prevent them from hearing a warning prior to injuring themselves or others. I wish I could get away with banning cell phones here - as far as I am concerned if there is an emergency, their families should have the shop number anyway.

From contributor O:
When I ran a large industrial kitchen I didnít allow headphones because of the safety issues. Even when I downsized my staff to just a few a radio served the purpose of "entertainment" (but not too loudly).

From contributor D:
I let my guys wear them, but they are an excellent crew who know they need to be productive in order for the business to thrive. It's slightly annoying to have to wait a second when I need to talk to them, but I have learned to handle it. FWIW, I also let my guys use their cell phones if they feel they need to. If you want adults, you might have to treat your people like adults. But my crew may be unusually competent and mature.

From contributor K:
My wife has a pager and we don't interrupt each other when working. If it is important and can't wait, we add 811, and then the number. 911 if it is an emergency. The same with texting. Otherwise, that is what breaks and lunch are for and why we have voice mail. Nothing is usually that critical that it can't wait until the next break or lunch. Of course the younger guys who are used to 24/7 electronics disagree. Background music in the shop shared by everyone is fine (they work it out what they want to listen to), but cell phones, Ipods - no. Texting becomes a distraction, and Ipods have cords which can be dangerous. It only takes one. Let them know how it costs more in insurance.

From contributor C:
I personally think it's a huge safety issue using personal music headphones. Plus there is a lot of verbal communication at our place and it's just not practical. If you need someone to come over quick to help lift a 12 ft conference table and they can't hear, you're stuck. We tied personal radios a few times, but people never like what the others were playing so I put a stop to that.

So in an effort to keep the troops happy, I put in a single music system with eight speakers to each area in our plant. After dealing with volume complaints (if it's loud enough to hear over two CNC's running it unbearable when they stop, etc) and finally finding a station that we can all live with (that was fun), I think we have it!

From contributor U:
Contributor D - I think your crew must be unusually competent and mature. I hope you treat them like gold! As far as the "which station, when?" on the radios, we have five people, they all get one day each week to pick the music.

From contributor I:
It is dangerous to wear music headphones. You need to hear the noise of the tool and what is going on around you to some extent. Sometime you can't see the function of the tool but you can hear it.

From contributor M:
The worst thing you can do for an employee as far as protecting their hearing is concerned is to "require" that they keep one or both ears uncovered in a machine environment. Perhaps the volume at which they listen to music headphones is just as damaging since they probably turn up the volume to hear over the ambient machine noise. There should be some kind of music headphones available which block out the damaging high frequency machine noise thus enabling low volume music listening.

I do not know of a single cabinet guy my age (58) who does not have significant hearing loss from all our years in the shop without protection. I know that all young guys resist ear muffs, but as far as I am concerned, any employer who does not require their use is being significantly derelict. I'm sure that there will come a time when it will also be considered criminal.

From contributor Z:
Headphones are not healthy. You need to have some air to cushion the vibration of noise before this vibration starts to ricochet around inside your ear. If you do not have that cushion you will destroy your hearing. Hearing loss is incremental. You don't notice it as it occurs. We all know how frustrating it is to try to talk on a cell phone with bad reception. If you do not protect your ears all of your conversations will be like that when you get older - every one of them.

Headphones are not safe. You need to be able to hear what is going on in the shop. At least 10% of your clues come from the sounds machines make. Headphones are not efficient. We need every advantage we can hang on to in this economy and this is a perk that doesn't cost much for anyone to give up. Music is a big part of our shop day but headphones aren't. The only rule we have is that nobody has to listen to music that they don't like. If something is playing that bothers you just go change the station. The only rules we have are that the station must be commercial free and it cannot be talk radio. Cannot afford to have people halting activities (waiting to turn the machine on) until a talking head is finished speaking.

Usually we listen to Pandora. No texting allowed. It is up to you to train your friends about when you can interact and when you cannot. We would not allow your friends to pop in and visit you all day long, nor will we let them do this electronically. If you start to receive texts we presume it must be an emergency and you will need to leave the building to resolve it.

From contributor M:
Contributor Z - you think it's "unhealthy" to wear head phones? I have heard that many broadcasters do have hearing loss from wearing them during their working lives, and they don't have the volume on high. Are ear muffs ok since they don't "trap" any noise which is produced within them? I know guys who use earplugs, although I don't know if they keep enough noise out.

From contributor Z:
I think I miscommunicated. I meant to say musical headphones. The kind that mitigate noise should be worn around machinery at all times, even if your hearing is already compromised.

From contributor J:
It is certainly not true that all young guys resist earmuffs. Myself and dozens of younger folks I've worked with wear them religiously. I don't turn on a machine without them. You'll see me on an install wearing them when I'm nailing trim. They are 29 db reduction, and they have a radio in them which I listen to at very low volume. I can always hear when somebody is trying to get my attention. I bring ear plugs to concerts too.

From contributor O:
I agree that you should treat people as adults, each and every one of us is responsible for his or her own action (even if we can plead insanity). That also means that we have a responsibility to our workers, work environment and to protect ourselves and businesses. There must be ground rules for every situation because no one is perfect nor can everyone know what is correct in every situation. Safety rules are not always for the most obvious reasons. I used to have a long talk with each new employee and I would give reminders each day that we should walk away from each day with the same amount of fingers, arms, etc we started with. That was my goal to make the employer money and do it safely and expediently.

From contributor G:
In my twenties I discovered that I felt much less fatigued at the end of the day if I wore ear muffs. Now days I wear one with FM tuned to my sat radio at low volume. I can hear people talking better with them on than without in a loud environment. I'm 56 and I can hear a flea fart from twenty paces. Wear your hearing protection, it works!

From contributor W:
Music is a distraction - period. If the job requires thinking, then music distracts from that process. The effect of the distraction depends upon the person and the job. In some processes in the shop, it has little adverse effect. In other processes, it does. When working with cutting tools, even the slightest distraction can cause serious injury, even to a mature adult. The risk simply isn't worth it. Nobody needs a phone in the shop, regardless of whether or not they are mature adults. Even for a personal emergency, the office can be called and the employee notified.

For example, loading and unloading an edgebander is a simple, mundane, safe task that would not be directly affected by listening to music through headphones. Another example is cabinet assembly. If quiet, background music can be heard without inferring with communication between workers, then that would be acceptable. But in most shops the proximity of the assembly area is too close to the rest of the noisy shop to allow this.

From contributor Y:
I am 32 and I use ear muffs with a radio in them. I never thought I would and that it was wrong and unsafe. Then we got a CNC and watching it hum and running the edgebander at the same time is enough to drive you crazy. Rules: Radio must be quite enough that you can hear the machines for any changes in their operation. You must be able to hear if talked directly too. Assembly, sanding finish, spraying etc - they are allowed to wear them. Never on saws, shapers etc though. It does cut down on the amount of talking the guys do with one another. They stay working and more focused on the job at hand. The repetitive work seems not so bad with the radio.