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Silence Is Golden, Even in the Workplace

February 19, 2001|Rosie Mestel

A few minutes ago, someone nearby was making a very loud hammering noise. Grr! But while everyone appreciates that loud sounds are stressful, what about the low hum of normal office noise?

The rustling of papers to my left, the clicking of keys to my right--the hum of the fax machine and a distant discussion at the desks across the way. What are those noises doing to people's health and work productivity?

According to Cornell University psychologist Gary Evans, maybe a lot. He and a grad student placed 40 experienced office workers in either a quiet office or one with a low-intensity murmur of noise, including speech, for three hours.

While the workers sat and typed, the researchers watched how often they adjusted their posture, chairs and footrests at the work station. They also collected urine samples from the workers and compared the levels of a hormone--epinephrin--that gets released when people are stressed.

Here's what they found. Even though the workers in the slightly noisy office didn't say that they felt stressed, their urine epinephrin levels were higher than the workers who'd sat in the quiet office.

The noisy-office workers also adjusted their posture and work stations less often--perhaps because they were trying especially hard to concentrate.

As for job performance, Evans found that those workers in the noisy office didn't try as hard to solve a tricky puzzle. But, bosses, be glad: Typing speed wasn't affected in the slightest by the noise.

No matter. I think I might bring in some earmuffs tomorrow.

With a Chair Like This, Who Needs a Mother?

If office workers won't make posture adjustments, perhaps their office furniture can make them. That's one possible use of a fancy-sounding chair developed by some folks at Purdue University.

Imagine: You're slouched in front of your computer, disobeying every rule in the ergonomic workplace handbook, when suddenly a honeyed, soothing voice coming from somewhere near your rump murmurs "Sit up, please! You are stressing your back!" or "You have had your legs crossed for a considerable period of time, which is bad for your blood circulation. Please uncross them." Alternatively, imagine a chair that just starts beeping when you're not sitting right.

All this is possible thanks to Purdue University engineering professor Hong Tan and grad student Lynne Slivovsky. Their "modified office chair" is covered with pressure sensors in the backrest and seat and is linked to a computer trained to translate the signals into posture information.

In tests on 30 people, the chair was 96% accurate in sensing slouching, leaning, leg-crossing and sitting upright. It's particularly attuned to a slouch, reporting it with 99.8% accuracy.

Tan and Slivovsky say that the chair--since everyone's body shape and sitting style is unique--could help ensure that the right person is sitting at a chair in security clearance situations. (Having a chair that squeaked "Hey! This is not your seat!" could also cut down on the kind of chair-swiping that goes on in offices.) And, of course, it could remind workers to sit properly.

There are, however, other points to be considered--such as how much an office full of beeping chairs might stress people out. Or how long a chair like that would last before someone ripped its stuffing apart.

Cryptic Crossword Solved by Reader

Finally, our thanks to readers who e-mailed us about the cryptic medical crossword puzzle we mentioned in last week's column. (It was posted on the Web site for the Canadian Journal of Rural Medicine at

Several readers gently explained that a clue that had befuddled me was really quite laughably easy. The clue: "occult eye suspiciously cast upon blood product." The answer: leucocyte, which is a type of blood cell and also an anagram of "occult eye." The folks are to be especially commended because I accidentally used the alternate spelling--"leukocyte"--in the column. (Oops.)

Special hurrahs for Dr. Joel Kizner of Lakewood, who completed the whole crossword puzzle. Dr. Kizner, select your prize from the following exciting items we somehow ended up with: a "Hepatitis B" eraser; a "reporter's guide to sepsis" bound in gorgeous white vinyl; a folder covered with fake woolly mammoth fur; or a large, rubber Swiss cheese-shaped drink holder. We know: It's a tough choice.


If you have an idea for a topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012,

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