Noisy Buggers in the Post-COVID world

Guest Post by Melody Kemp

In my more bizarre moments, I can imagine the cockpit conversation:

‘Hey Bill, there’s the blue and white house. We turn left here’
‘Bob, Copy. Over.’

Of course, it’s nonsense to think that the complexities of aircraft take-offs and landings would depend on visual cues, rather than complex technology, weather and fuel economy.  In fact, it’s the very technology that allows communities to track and identify aircraft and the noise level as they pass overhead.

But I have to admit that, particularly at night, when I see the queue of aircraft waiting to approach, their starboard and port lights blazing into our living room, it’s hard not to go out and shake an impotent fist at the crew.

As I completed this third paragraph, a Jetstar plane flew overhead. I measured the roar at 76DbA, another app told me it was slightly less than 1000 feet above my roof.  As it continues to descend, it passes over the densely populated parts of the city that follow the Brisbane River, including New Farm and Doomben, well known to race goers. What was that old saying about don’t scare the horses?

I work at home. My concentration and the paragraphs I write, come in lumps divided by the passing of planes. Some, like the Flying Doctor prop-jets, make, in objective terms, little noise (around 58dBA), but if one is sensitised to the noise in general, they become yet another psychological hazard. Evidence for aircraft noise exposure being linked to poorer well-being, lower quality of life, and psychological ill health is reflected by the responses to my questions and Facebook comments posted by concerned residents (some are included below)

Back to BAC

In July this year after a protracted period of planning, and somewhat flawed consultation in which residents were told there may be only a slight increase in noise, the Brisbane Airport Corporation (BAC) opened the new runway. It is this change to the configuration of the airport that has resulted in far more noise stress over a greater number of suburbs.  Thirteen years ago it might have been difficult to predict how much noise the new runway would incur, how much the residential areas would expand to the north of the airport and how many homes would take on dual functions of home and work.

‘Rather than follow the old flight paths that took the majority of planes out over the sea, along the Brisbane River or over the major adjacent industrial centres, the planes now come in over dense suburban areas,’

a resident of Hamilton, one of the affected areas.

Another wrote with some scepticism:

There was a concerted effort to mislead the public in the communications of what the primary mode of operations would be. I have screen captured 3 documents that show the trail from 2006 onwards. In 2006 and 2017 documents (and many in between) BAC consistently stated that they would preference taking off and landing over the bay as the primary mode of operation…

With up to eight flights landing within 20 minutes as documented by some residents, people are angry. And it is about to get worse. Brisbane Airport Corporation general manager Jim Parashos told local radio:

’With the border reopening, (on December 1st) the Brisbane-Sydney flights will increase five-fold to 25 flights per day, while the Sydney-Melbourne route will increase ten-fold to more than 20 flights a day.
“Yesterday was one of the most exciting, most welcome days for anyone in the aviation, tourism, hospitality industries,”

But not for those that work at home or have local businesses or teach at local schools. The highest aircraft noise level we have recorded is 82DbA as a Qantas jet came into land – well above acceptable formal workplace limits.

In addition, there is no effective curfew. Incoming and outgoing noise continues throughout the night, and despite being already quite deaf, I am roused from sleep. There exists, I gather, an informal agreement that flights should reduce significantly at night (rather than cease and desist) unless it was decided that a particular flight was important and necessary. Who decides this, and upon what criteria, has never been made public.

Despite platitudes, and staff appointed to community liaison, BAC seems to be unwilling to consider changes to the routes nor listen to community concerns. On paper, BAC looks like an accessible organisation in which women play a significant part. Dutch airport giant Schiphol is a significant shareholder and the Chief Executive Officer is from the Netherlands as is the Executive General Manager, Strategy & Planning.  But the situation and the surrounding debate encapsulates the attitude of insouciance  held by some corporations best exemplified by the ‘oops sorry’ of Rio Tinto, after they blew up an ancient Aboriginal site.

It is important to state that those concerned do not want the flights to end, but rather a return to the previous practices that more effectively reduced noise exposure.  

The push for a new runway fully supported by the Murdoch-owned Courier Mail, was in part to address the charge that BAC did not emulate Schiphol’s notable home-town efficiency. It might also be because huge retailers like Amazon, Walmart and E Bay have shown interest in using Brisbane as their hub, increasing the already significant cargo filled planes that are currently filling the schedules in lieu of travellers.

“I work from home living at Portside Hamilton where the planes arrive and depart directly overhead. We are on the 8th floor of our apartment It’s not possible to soundproof our property any further. I also have Ménière’s disease which makes loud noise extremely painful and causes extreme mental stress.”

One respondent’s concerns

Local Disruption

Due to circumstances, both my partner and I work at home. According to the press, we are among an increasing number who have chosen or have been forced to do so.

The fact that so many people are now working at home makes it imperative that Workplace Health and Safety redefine a workplace and establish exposure criteria consistent with needs.  

[Myself and my husband both work from home in New Farm and we are going crazy. We both have meetings with clients most days and worry they won’t be able to hear us. Before my meetings start, I have to close all the windows and doors in the house, and I still hear the planes clearly. It also seems to be affecting my wifi at the moment the plane flies over which is causing issues – not sure if anyone else has experienced this.]

While the Murdoch press is somewhat dismissive of  community concern, the  residents have proved to worthy adversaries, having among their number, pilots, engineers, health workers and others with technical know-how.

Teachers and principals were also interviewed for this article, as education is work and to be valued, not drowned out. One school has curtailed outdoor classes, another school said they had not received any communication much less practical assistance (i.e noise insulation improved air-conditioning) from the BAC. Of particular concern are children on the autistic spectrum who can be more sensitive to noise.


“Now that summer’s here and my study windows are open all time, passing jets are a real irritation, especially with a zoom meeting in progress. I hadn’t thought of it as a safety issue, but a major annoyance. I work from home 5 days.”

one respondent’s concerns

Work

It is well recognised that aircraft noise is a serious source of social stress and learning disorders which can be detected in the responses to my questions.

I can sympathise. This report took me much longer to write than normal, due to the frequent distraction. At times I can be trying to compose a sentence and five flights thunder over my head in quick succession.  The potential Booker prize winner is lost in distraction and deeply felt stress.

Our house, like most, is not designed for noise minimisation. With climate change, and increasing heat, we expose ourselves to more noise if anything, by leaving windows open for cross ventilation (a practice increasingly promoted as a COVID19 control measure). Measurements taken by members of a community group affected by the noise tracked in ’September 1,196 flights over 65 dB, 25 over 75 dB and 2 over 80 dB (Source: Facebook Brisbane Aircraft Noise) One member said

“A 3dB change is double the volume, a 10dB change is a factor of 10. It’s a logarithmic scale”


What we Have

Brisbane Airport has four runways (each end), two are over water, one is over industrial land, and one is over high-density noise-sensitive residential areas. From the outset, procedures should have prioritised the three less noise sensitive runways – this was not done and now due to this lack of thought, noise is splashed over the city and dense residential areas probably to save a few track miles to airlines – Rethinking is required.

The attached tracking diagrams show that even in good weather planes are routed through convoluted flight paths which end up traversing high density suburbs.

The public reaction to these changes has raised for me the broader question of how do current work health and safety (WHS) regulations meet the needs of an increasingly ‘domesticated’ workforce? Aircraft noise may be the extreme end, but work disturbance can come in many forms: visiting neighbours, adjacent construction, or noisy kids. Hazards can include fire risk, postural strain, electrocution, or simply the stress induced by multiple demands and overzealous supervisors who view working at home as a cosy cruise.

And the elephant in the home office is of course heat stress. While companies can afford to air condition their premises, insulate, or use materials engineered to maintain a workable ambient temperature, home workers facing electricity cost hikes not matched by income increases, may not be so keen.

Ironically the new runway was based on economics claiming that overseas tourism numbers would skyrocket. instead they have tanked due to COVID. The majority of the planes currently going overhead are cargo carriers.

It’s agreed that it will be a hard slog to convince BAC to reconsider. However the revision of national and local WHS Codes of Practice to reflect new working arrangements might be persuasive.


Melody Kemp is a resident of Laos but has ben in Queensland during COVID19. She has written exclusively for SafetyAtWorkBlog previous on issues including asbestos, the safety of wildlife protection officers and corporate responsibility in Asia. She is also the author of the excellent OHS publication Working for Life: Sourcebook on Occupational Health for Women, a free download (and deserves a second edition if anyone wants to fund it).

One thought on “Noisy Buggers in the Post-COVID world”

  1. Melody raises several useful talking points related to working from home. Are our home able to cope with someone working from home for long periods of time? I live in an old small suburban house where the dining room has been repurposed for my office. People walk through it from lounge room to kitchen. If I still had young children, this option may not be viable. Do modern houses have offices, or nooks or do people need to repurpose the guest bed room?

    When this situation is combined with additional hazards such as heat, humidity, climate change and aircraft noise, as Melody says, is the home “office” safe? Or as safe as is reasonably practicable? The ACTU has released a Charter for Working from Home which seems to reiterate the OHS obligation to Consult but also increases tensions between workers and employers.

    COVID-19 has changed the way we work and the way we live, in ways we are still discovering. It has changed what is meant by a workplace. It has changed how we look at our homes. It has complicated our working lives and changed our relationship with our neighbourhood. Melody’s situation in Brisbane relates to aircraft noise. Some of us are discovering how noisy our neighbourhoods are during the day from dogs, traffic, garbage trucks and a range of issues.

    When we consider working at home, we need to apply a new perspective to our homes and, maybe, working from home just isn’t practical. Let’s hope we have an office to return to and the boss has not downsized.

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