What I Hear

Life with hearing loss

Noisy Restaurants, Part 2: When You're the Waiter

Waiters may suffer the real damage.

In my blog post on noisy restaurants, I ended by noting that if the noise is damaging to patrons' ears, imagine what it must be doing to the staff.  

Coincidentally, The Gothamist, which describes itself as "a daily weblog covering New York city's personalities, news stories, and media with humorous photos and running commentary," ran the following item this past weekend

If you were planning to spend your Saturday night hobnobbing with the clubgoing Williamsburg crowd, maybe bring a pair of earplugs: in today's crappy boss news, a hostess at a Midtown nightclub is suing her employers after going nearly deaf in one ear thanks to too-loud music.

 Margaret Clemente, an aspiring actress, worked the VIP-section at Lavo, a nightlife hotspot on 58th and Madison, for two years. And while nightly exposure to David Guetta and co. might make one pray for deafness, the gig was more than lucrative —Clemente told the Post she earned $42 an hour, and could rack up $500 a night in tips. Eventually, though, the club's pounding bass line was so brutal she developed "extreme difficulty hearing" in one ear. And when Clemente told her bosses she needed a quieter spot to work, she says they turned against her. "Things got ugly. They were no longer willing to keep me on," Clemente told the Post.

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 This isn't the first time someone's complained about Lavo's noise. When the club opened in 2010, Times reviewer Sam Sifton called the sound inside cacophonous, and likened it to, "And Duke beats Notre Dame in overtime to win the N.C.A.A. lacrosse title!" And just last summer, another Times report noted that the club's music was at a dangerously high 96 decibels, and a waitress working there complained about migraines.

But Clemente says her employers didn't bother bringing those sick beats down post-Times expose, and instead just handed out cheap foam earplugs. She finally quit late last fall and is suing for an undisclosed amount in damages.

That 2012 New York Times article was by Cara Buckley, headlined "Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated Roar" Buckley reported that the noise at Lavo averaged 96 decibels over the course of an hour, comparing the din to the sound of a power mower. Lavo was one of 37 venues the Times tested with its decibel meter. One third of them were bordering on "dangerously loud."

Ms. Clemente was indeed subjected to continuous noise that may have damaged her hearing. How her lawsuit fares partly depends on her work schedule. OSHA regulations allow eight hours a day of exposure to 90 decibels, six hours at 92, four hours at 95, two hours at 100 and so on, up to 15 minutes or less to 115 decibels.

In addition, although noise induced hearing loss is sometimes unilateral (in one ear) this is generally the result of exposure to, say, a shotgun used repeatedly in hunting. Bar or restaurant noise would more likely -- but not necessarily -- affect both ears. 

It will be interesting to see where this case goes. As some observers pointed out in the comments accompanying the Gothamist post, Ms. Clemente was very well paid,

Others suggested she could have tried earplugs. In case you're wondering how she would have taken orders wearing earplugs, there are several brands on the market. Initially designed for musicians, they could also be used in this kind of environment. Brands made by Etymolic and Hearos are available on Amazon.com and cost around $12. 

Nevertheless, as one of the more printable comments on Gothamist wrote:"I have really mixed feelings here. On the one hand, the employers are 100% responsible for providing a safe working environment for their employees. They definitely share a large part of the blame here.On the other hand... Duh? What did she think was going to happen? She should have bought her own set of quality ear plugs, even if her bosses weren't going to pay for it." I have mixed feelings too, but I'll watch this case with interest. 

 

Katherine Bouton, a former editor at The New York Times, is the author of Shouting Won't Help: Why I—and 50 Million Other Americans—Can't Hear You.

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