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Construction Noise Handbook

3.0 Effects of Construction Noise

3.1 Introduction

Construction noise in the community may not pose a health risk or damage peoples' sense of hearing, but it can adversely affect peoples' quality of life. To some degree, construction noise can be a contributing factor to the degradation of someone's health in that it can cause people to be irritated and stressed and can interrupt their ability to sleep - all of which may lead to higher blood pressure, anxiety, and feelings of animosity toward the people or agencies responsible for producing the noise.

In fact, several of the traditional definitions of "noise" (i.e. unwanted or undesirable sound) can be associated with construction noise. Construction noise can be perceived or considered to:

Construction noise has the potential to disturb people at home in their residences, in office buildings or retail businesses, in public institutional buildings, at locations of religious services, while attending sporting events, or when on vacation.

A crane and pile driving equipment operate within 25 feet of nearby residences. Many piles can be seen driven into the soil.

Figure 3.1 Construction in residential area (Photo #924)

A backhoe loader with jackhammer attachment is smashing pavement in a downtown, urban setting.

Figure 3.2 Construction in business district (Photo #714)

Several pieces of construction equipment, including a front-end loader, are working near a sports stadium.

Figure 3.3 Construction in vicinity of sporting event venue (Photo #718)

Several cranes working near a boardwalk where a cruise ship passes by in the background.

Figure 3.4 Construction in paradise (Photo #1033)

While construction noise can be unwelcome during nighttime periods in residential areas when people are trying to sleep, it can be equally unwelcome during the daytime in commercial areas if it interferes with peoples' ability to conduct business. In short, construction noise has the potential to disturb people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If not properly addressed, specific public concerns related to a project could result in actions affecting the progress and/or cost of a project.

There is nothing particularly unique about construction noise - it's a fluctuation in air pressure oscillating above and below atmospheric pressure that is produced by construction equipment or activities with sufficient magnitude (loudness) and within a certain frequency range (audible spectrum) such that human beings can hear it - just like any other noise. Being a physical parameter, it can be measured, quantified, modeled, predicted, and in certain instances, abated to some degree.

Noise from construction-related activities can also affect non-human species such as aquatic life and land and airborne animals in a variety of ways. The non-human category includes domestic, farm-based, and creatures living in the wild. In assessing the effects of noise on non-humans, it is essential that noise analysts closely coordinate with qualified biologists in the assessment and mitigation of noise impacts.

Issues related to vibration may also be raised during project development. This is particularly true when blasting operations occur. There are no FHWA requirements directed specifically to traffic-induced or construction-related vibration. Most studies that State DOTs have done to assess the impact of operational traffic-induced vibrations have shown that both measured and predicted vibration levels are less than any known criteria for structural damage to buildings, although levels may be such as to cause various degrees of annoyance. Analysis of construction-related vibration effects is beyond the scope of this Handbook.

The intent of this Handbook is not to provide detailed discussion of the above-listed effects, but rather to summarize them and refer the reader to more detailed information regarding specific effects of construction-related noise.

3.2 Types of Effects

3.2.1 Physical Effects

Physical effects related to humans are probably most applicable to the operators of construction equipment as opposed to people residing adjacent to construction projects. An exception to this would be unique situations such as scuba diving or swimming activities occurring in the vicinity of a water-based pile driving or blasting operation. The potential for hearing loss or physical damage to the human hearing mechanism is protected by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) criteria, and as such, is not discussed herein. While resulting in the potential to annoy or disturb humans, construction noise is typically not a danger to people's hearing.

Knowledge related to the physical effects of construction noise on non-human species such as land-based animals, birds, and owls is limited. It is recognized that aquatic mammals and fish can be physically damaged by water-born sound and vibration waves caused by construction activities such as underwater blasting and pile driving. In lieu of detailed discussions within this Handbook of the variety of specialized studies related to the physical effects of construction noise on such species, references to such studies are provided in a list at the end of this chapter.

3.2.2 Speech Interference

Loud noises from construction activities can create situations where people cannot effectively communicate, as documented in Tables 3.1 and 3.2. While such situations may be merely an annoyance or inconvenience in certain situations, they could be construed as a safety issue if such noises prevent people from hearing important local noises such as approaching traffic, emergency warning devices, alerts from other people, etc.

3.2.3 Activity Interference

Noise from construction activities can affect humans, land-based animals, aquatic wildlife, and airborne wildlife in a variety of ways. Humans are most affected in terms of sleep deprivation and the carrying on of normal daily activities such as watching television, listening to the radio, recreational activities, and activities requiring concentration, such as reading. Special activities such as those associated with churches, schools, and libraries can also be negatively affected by construction noise. Water-based activities such as scuba diving, swimming, and boating can also be affected.

3.2.4 Annoyance

While non-humans are most likely annoyed by construction noise, there is little known about the related effects. However, the annoyance of noise on humans has been studied for some time and is documented in a 1974 EPA report commonly referred to as the "Levels Document"ref033. It is complementary to the 1979 EPA document, "Protective Noise Levels"ref052.

3.2.5 Examples of Data from Previous Studies (Effects on Humans)

A variety of studies have attempted to quantify the effects of noise on humans. An example is provided in the following table contained in the "Levels Document" referred to above. Note that all noise levels referred to in the "Levels Document" are A-weighted.

Table 3.1 Summary of Human Effects in Terms of Speech Communication, Community Reactions, Annoyance, and Attitude toward Area Associated with an Outdoor Day/Night Sound Level of 55 dB re 20 Micropascals.

Type of Effect Magnitude of Effect
Speech - Indoors 100% sentence intelligibility (average) with a 5 dB margin of safety
Speech - Outdoors 100% sentence intelligibility (average) at 0.35 meters
99% sentence intelligibility (average) at 1.0 meters
95% sentence intelligibility (average) at 3.5 meters
Average Community Reaction None evident; 7 dB below level of significant "complaints and threats of legal action" and at least 16 dB below "vigorous action" (attitudes and other non-level related factors may affect this result)
Complaints 1% dependent on attitude and other non-level related factors
Annoyance 1% dependent on attitude and other non-level related factors
Attitude Toward Area Noise essentially the least important of various factors

Table 3.2. Steady A-weighted Sound Levels that Allow Communication with 95 Percent Sentence Intelligibility over Various Distances Outdoors for Different Voice Levels.

Communication Distance (meters) 0.5 1 2 3 4 5
Normal Voice (dB) 72 66 60 56 54 52
Raised Voice (dB) 78 72 66 62 60 58

3.2.6 Effects on Non-Humans

The effects of construction-related noise on non-humans are less understood and probably most related to mating, nesting, migration, and feeding activities. While data on such effects is limited as compared with information on humans, some research is availableref031 and ref032.

For a more detailed discussion of the general effects of noise on wildlife and other non-human species, the reader is directed to references dealing with the following:

In determining noise impacts and possible mitigation measures for construction projects involving non-human species, noise analysts should closely coordinate with qualified biologists.

Updated: 7/5/2011
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