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What did you say? I can’t hear you. I’m cuddling a circular saw!

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Noise articles in this series


What did you say? I can’t hear you. I’m cuddling a circular saw!

Most research into screaming children focuses on the production of the stress hormone Cortisol.

What is significantly less reported is how dangerous that screaming child is to their carer or teacher as they try and comfort them. Once hearing is damaged its irreversible.

A research paper from the Eastern Kentucky University, draws a link between the volume of a child’s scream and potential hearing damage (L. Carney, 2014). The report has children aged between 9 months and 6 years as being the loudest or most dangerous to hearing, their screams varied between 99 and 120 decibels A-weighted (L. Carney, 2014). It also suggests wearing sound attenuating ear muffs as a way to protect hearing.

Under the Approved Code of Practice for the Management of Noise in the Workplace (OSH, 1996), para 1.3 the maximum exposure an employee can be subjected to, is an averaged 85db over an 8 hour shift, technically known as LEQ 8 hours (OSH, 2002)

The research by Carney, describes how a child’s scream, has been documented as between 99 and 120 decibels (L. Carney, 2014). But what does this mean?

If you just look at the numbers you’re probably going to think 85-120 it’s pretty close to a 50% increase between 85 and 120. If that’s what you thought you just made a very big mistake, decibels are a logarithmic scale. Every time you increase by 3 decibels, the sound pressure doubles and exposure time reduces by half.

85 decibels maximum exposure limit, LEQ 8 hour, under the approved code of practice.

88 decibels is double the maximum sound pressure exposure and would reduce total exposure time by half.

100 decibels is the bottom sound level of a screaming child and is 32 times the sound pressure of 85 decibels. So you divide the 8 hours exposure by 32 and the maximum daily exposure reduces to just 15 minutes and that in simple terms assumes the rest of your 8 hour shift is totally silent.

109 decibels and your time limits plummets to a little under 2 minutes, and that’s the entire sound pressure exposure for an 8-hour shift. This is a mid-point of reading between the loudest and quietest children. The research is lacking an average reading for a child.

On the above information there is a clear need for investigation as under the Health and Safety at Work Act in NZ it’s the duty of the PCUB to provide a safe place of work for everyone (adults and children included). 

Once excessive sound pressure exposure is suspected, the PCBU must take steps to mitigate the risk.

The first measure is to take sound readings (Competent person, using a Class 1 or Class 2 sound meter), then if confirmed remove the sound at source.  This step, however, can’t be completed with a child and the proximity of the teacher comforting the child would also be a limiting factor.

The second measure is to reduce the sound at source (reduce the volume the screaming child produces), again this isn’t always or quickly possible.

The third it to mitigate which would be some form of physical barrier to the sound. This however, is also difficult given that teachers require the use of hearing to detect Johnny and Billy filling the toilet with loo roll. Or Betty and Brenda shouting “I’m not your friend. Along with an all manner of other issues.

There are “safe sound” traffic lights in use at some early childhood services. Green it’s quiet, Orange take steps to reduce volume, Red it’s too loud…

In the past ChildForum supported the roll out of these to early childhood centres but now no longer does as feedback was that it was more of a novelty than an effective noise warning device within a setting that has many children and various activities going on. 

I personally do wonder if these could become a challenge for children to trigger a red as that is precisely what I would have done – stood in front of a light and clapped my hands to trigger the red. The lights are also are designed to detect general background noise, not comforting a screaming child.



* We would like to thank James and the SLM Group for their help in evaluating the research for us, within a New Zealand work context.  If you require noise testing they can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  Remember all PCBU’s are required to provide a safe place of work.

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