Recent case in area raises questions about earbuds at work

Recent case in area raises questions about earbuds at work

  • The debate over whether it's appropriate to listen to music at work is nothing new.

    The debate over whether it's appropriate to listen to music at work is nothing new. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • Studio shot of mp3 player and earphones

    Studio shot of mp3 player and earphones Jupiterimages

  • Earphones

    Earphones Jupiterimages

Published: 9/5/2010 12:01 AM

While he cut onions and set up summer festival stands for a Mount Prospect restaurant, Jonathan Pascolini kept earbuds in his ears and listened to his favorite heavy metal songs.

Pascolini said he kept the volume low enough so he could hear if someone called to him and that the music improved his mood and made him more productive, even if his boss disagreed.

"My boss would say, 'Take those things out and pay attention!' But I told him I need them to be able to do concentrate and do things right," said Pascolini, 21, of Arlington Heights, who no longer works for the restaurant. "It made it a lot easier to do my work with my headphones in."

The debate over whether it's appropriate to listen to music at work is nothing new, but the issue returned to the spotlight last week after a 16-year-old lifeguard in Kenosha County, Wis., was accused of not hearing a drowning teen's calls for help because she was listening to her iPod.

Kenosha County authorities investigated and cleared the lifeguard of any wrongdoing, saying she did not have earbuds in her ears and only used her iPod as a clock.

While it's against the rules for lifeguards to listen to an MP3 player on the job, is it OK for a doctor? A construction worker? A data-entry clerk? A truck driver?

According to new data from CIMI Corporation, 75 percent of people who work in front of a computer listen to their MP3 player for more than one hour per day (including breaks). Workers who don't deal with customers, such as warehouse workers, spend more than four hours a day listening to MP3 players, and jobs that are largely solo/concentration activities - such as architects, programmers, engineers and designers - listened to MP3 players the most.

Programmers averaged nearly five hours a day, CIMI President Tom Nolle said.

Research shows mixed results as to whether music impacts a worker's productivity.

On one hand, it can reduce stress and improve a person's mood. But it also can be a distraction and, in some cases, a safety hazard, says Ohio-based health and safety consultant Dan Markiewicz.

Most companies enforce a no-headphones rule because they believe it will distract employees from their work and, more importantly, pose a safety risk, Markiewicz said. If earbuds keep a worker from hearing a warning alarm or someone saying "Hey, look out!" then it's possible they could be injured.

"Employers need to decide how they're going to manage the risk," Markiewicz said, adding that some companies go so far as to hold educational seminars for employees on how to listen to their MP3 players safely. "It's not a black-and-white issue."

It depends on the job and the employer.

Obviously, anyone who must interact with customers or talk on the phone can't realistically listen to an MP3 player at the same time.

Drivers can't either; since 2001, it's been illegal to wear headphones or earbuds in both ears while driving, according to the Illinois Secretary of State's Office. However, the Illinois Vehicle Code doesn't prohibit drivers from using a single earbud while driving.

Markiewicz believes listening to an MP3 player at work is a generational thing, as younger people are more comfortable with multi-tasking than older people.

"Younger people don't even think about it. Technology is something they use," he said. "The older we get, we tend to think it's not a good thing."

For people who stock shelves, do data entry or perform monotonous tasks, listening to music, podcasts or books on tape can make work more enjoyable.

Sandy Moore, 42, of Elgin, says she spends half her workday with earbuds in her ears, listening to '80s and '90s pop music while she does paperwork for her inside sales job at Laser Pro in Elgin.

"It's quiet in my office ... and if I sit in an office too long without anything going, I get a little tired," Moore said. "Music picks me up and puts me in a good mood and keeps me going. And it's commercial-free, which helps."

No one listens to MP3 players in Sofia Caeg's office, at Alliance Française in Chicago. However, the Arlington Heights woman said her boss allows the staff to listen to "very low level" French music on their computers during the slow weeks in summer.

"It's nice. French music is very soothing," Caeg said.

Caeg listens to her MP3 player on breaks and during her 45-minute train commute, but says she couldn't really work with earbuds in her ears all day.

"If you're translating an article, the music is distracting. But if you're just entering data (into a computer), it helps break the silence," she said.

Music won't be disappearing from the workplace anytime soon. Apple has sold more than 100 million iPods - just one of the brands of MP3 players out there - and companies now manufacture small, flesh-colored earbuds that are hard to detect.

"Employers would like to have everyone perform like a robot, and do their job, but that's not how humans are built," Markiewicz said. "Technology's going to continue to evolve ... so the debate's not going to be over."