UW News

February 2, 2011

UW researcher studies transit, other noises in life

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

Rick Neitzel comments on light rail noise locally.

Going to a concert? Wear earplugs, Rick Neitzel advises — the kind musicians wear.

The term “occupational hygienist” doesnt bring to mind the same image as “doctor” or “nurse” or, even, “scientist” for the average person.  Rick Neitzel , who is technically a research scientist in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, understands this. “The profession doesnt get a lot of visibility,” he said.”The assumption is that an occupational hygienist scrubs gears in factories to make machines run well.”

Neitzels work, however, is pretty straightforward and, actually, interesting.  He and other occupational hygienists study health and safety issues in the workplace. “We study many different exposures, ranging from chemicals to radiation to temperature extremes to bacteria and mold,” he said. Also included: a workers risk of falling from heights or being crushed by a crane, and employees affected by noise and vibration, such as construction workers running jackhammers or the other kind of hygienist  operating ultrasonic dental equipment.

UW Research Scientist Rick Neitzel evaluates noise levels on a construction site in Sunnyside, Wash./photo by Sabrina Somers

UW Research Scientist Rick Neitzel evaluates noise levels on a construction site in Sunnyside, Wash./photo by Sabrina Somers

Neitzels work has focused primarily on noise and vibration.  His name has become well-known in research circles and with East Coast media in the last few years, even if hes still a bit under the radar here in the Pacific Northwest.   He has teamed up with researchers from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health to measure noise levels at transit platforms and stations, as well as inside vehicles on New York City subways, buses, ferries, commuter railways and the Roosevelt Island tramway.

Study findings from the team published in the American Journal of Public Health in August 2009 concluded that Metropolitan Transit Authority subways had the highest average noise levels of all mass transit in New York City, with levels high enough to potentially increase the risk of noise- induced hearing loss.

Neitzel and the team are now delving into how long people are exposed to the noise levels and for what groups of people is transit noise the primary risk of hearing loss. “Groups Ive worked with in the past include construction and forestry workers and people in manufacturing,” he said. “Its pretty clear that what they do on the job will be the primary risk of hearing loss. But if you look at New York City, the vast majority of people are either in the service industry or in white collar jobs.  I dont expect most of them to be getting much, if any, exposure at work.” Neitzel said.

What those people do in their spare time—commuting, hunting, going to sporting events and rock concerts, listening to MP3 players for hours at a time—may present more of a risk of hearing loss. “Im particularly interested in seeing what we should focus on from the public health standpoint,” he said.

How did the Seattle-based researcher get linked up with counterparts in the Big Apple? Neitzel chuckles when he gets that question. “I got a phone call one day in 2006 from the researchers at Columbia and they said, ‘Are you this person we saw on the Internet that studies noise?” Yes, thats right.  Google brought the team together.  “Its a funny story, with all the networks and professional associations that exist,” he said. “Sometimes, its the Internet that gets you where you need to be.”


Research scientist Neitzel also shared his thoughts on Sound Transits light rail and related noise and provided tips on how to reduce exposure to high levels of noise.