Studies: Stadium Noise — Particularly Whistles — Endangers Officials’ Hearing

According to research, sports officials are at higher risk than the general population of experiencing hearing problems. A study titled “Sports Officials’ Hearing Status: Whistle Use as a Factor Contributing to Hearing Trouble“ and published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene reports a higher likelihood of such symptoms as tinnitus and difficulty hearing by referees and umpires than others of the same age in the general population.

Although high overall noise levels in sports venues were cited as contributory factors, the shrillness of referees’ whistles was cited as a major individual factor. For a referee, a loud whistle at ear level could push ears “past the tipping point,” causing or worsening problems, according to a New York Times article summarizing the report. It went on to say, “With whistle volume measuring from 104 to 116 decibels at the ear, the safe daily noise dose is exceeded in just 5 to 90 seconds. The most commonly used whistle, the Fox 40 Classic, measured 106 decibels, allowing for just 48 seconds before damaging exposure, or 96 whistle blows of half a second each.” Measurements were taken using audio dosimeters available on Amazon.com.

This has not escaped the notice of the A1s who mix sports broadcasts. Noting that whistles are important components in a sports mix, especially when officials call a play dead, Fox Sports senior mixer and audio consultant Fred Aldous recalls, “When we miked the [NFL] umpires, I would compress that mic very heavily, not knowing when he would blow the whistle. Heavy compression helped from blasting into the mix.”

A1 Wendel Stevens says NBA officials may be the hardest hit. “Just three officials do all the tweeting versus an NFL officiating team of seven guys,” he explains. Stevens, who mixes Sunday Night Football for NBC and mixed last year’s Super Bowl, suggests that the broader field of play in football means that officials have to blow whistles more often to get the attention of players in the midst of false starts or fumbles.

But, while officials try to get noticed by players, the audio mixers have no problem hearing them. “From a TV-audio standpoint, the whistle is by far the loudest thing on the field, … well above the threshold of my compressors,” says Stevens. “I tell our parab [operators] that when the [visiting] team has the ball and the crowd is in full throat, we need to hear whistles at the very least. And that’s not too hard a sound to capture, even in louder environments.”

A1 Phil Adler, who mixes NFL games for CBS, notes that the unpredictability of whistles makes it hard to control them in the audio mix, necessitating keeping limiters on them constantly to prevent overmodulation.

“Sometimes the ref is very close to a parab that’s up quite high in the mix. If I didn’t have a limiter, it would sound nasty and trigger another limiter somewhere else down the line,” he says. “Unfortunately for my submixer, he doesn’t have one on his headphones so he usually comes away with a splitting headache at the end of each game. I’m amazed he’s got any high-end left in his hearing. I know, when I did that job, it was brutal.”

The report on the effect of whistles on hearing comes amid heightened awareness of overall louder noise in sports venues. A study conducted by the University of Alberta during the 2006 Stanley Cup hockey playoff games in Edmonton found that six minutes of sports-arena noise gives fans 81 times the daily allowable dose of noise established by the American Academy of Audiology.

In the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, another article, “Occupational and Recreational Noise Exposure From Indoor Arena Hockey Games,” reports on studies of noise exposures at arenas during collegiate and semiprofessional hockey games. According to that research, a significant number of workers and attendees within the arenas were exposed to harmful noise levels. The research may provide a foundation for noise-control implementation in indoor sports arenas.

The CALM Act addresses bothersome noise issues in broadcast audio, but officials, players, and fans at the venues themselves are exposed to pernicious noise-related danger on a regular basis. Both professional football and soccer leagues have begun to take seriously issues related to head injuries. Could noise be next?