Question: Now my hearing is beginning to deteriorate, I am increasingly sensitive to sound levels. At a recent service, I used a phone app to measure the sound levels when the worship band was playing and everyone was singing.
These averaged 92-96 dBA over a cumulative period of about 20 minutes. Alongside me were parents with pre-school children, aged from a few weeks old, who regularly attend. Using the same phone and app, I measured the sound level of a commercial circular saw, for which ear protection is advised during use. It registered 92 dBA in an enclosed space.
These are not scientific measurements, but can any readers with the necessary specialism in audiology and child development advise whether such sound-level exposure in our churches might be harmful, and subject to safeguarding regulations?
Your answers: I have experienced high sound levels in worship, too, at the recent Thy Kingdom Come service at St Paul’s Cathedral. The sound level from the worship band was so high at times that I could not hear myself sing: I could only feel the vibration of my voice (and I am a strong singer).
I, too, used a decibel meter on my phone, this time to compare the level of the amplified band and the organ (used for two hymns): the organ never exceeded 85 dB full blast (the level at which the Health and Safety Executive recommend hearing protection for sustained exposure), while the band reached 96 dB, and a peak of 119!
As well as the real risk to worshippers’ hearing, there is a theological safety issue here. Leadership through superior power alone is contrary to the example of Christ, who led as a servant from a position of weakness. This is a model for musicians and sound-desk operators as much as for any other activity. Their function is to enable congregational song, not to dominate it.
I still recall the Roman Catholic musician Michael Joncas, from the United States, leading a conference of 150 in a responsorial psalm using only his own, unaccompanied, unamplified voice. This is all the Church had for centuries, and is, arguably, all it takes.
The Noise at Work Regulations 2005 prescribe a lower exposure action level of 80 dB (at which hearing protection must be provided if the employee requests it), and an upper exposure action level of 85 dB (at which the employer must provide hearing protection and ensure that his employees wear it, whether they like it or not).
The figures quoted, however, are for noise levels averaged over the eight-hour working day. The decibel scale is logarithmic; so, for each increase of 3 dB, the sound energy doubles. The hazard from sound can, therefore, be reduced by reducing the length of time a person is exposed to it.
To take your correspondent’s example, an exposure of 96 dB for, say, half an hour, would be the same as 93 dB for an hour; 90 for two hours; 87 for four hours; or 84 for the standard working day of eight hours. This is just below the level at which hearing protection must be provided — but, of course, the regulations do not apply in this case, because no one is “at work”.
I have had to deal with a complaint from a member of a very noisy independent church who, despite sitting as far away from the speakers as possible, suffered considerable pain and was forced to leave the church. She was concerned for the safety of those who remained. On discussing this with the minister, I was told that God insisted that his worship must be loud!
I hope this view is not reflected by too many ministers. I would suggest that the questioner approach his or her minister and ask him or her to preach on the story of Joshua’s trumpet-blowers at the battle of Jericho, emphasising the permanent damage that can be caused by exposure to loud noise.
Tim Nice (Environmental Health Officer and LLM)
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