csm_productOne of the hotter technical topics in new corporate fit outs is the term sound masking. Sound masking isn’t new to the market but it has made a resurgence in the market over the past few years. We are seeing a change in the building out of new corporate spaces and the move is into the more open concept feel. This open concept feel is not just more economical to construct it also offers better utilization of the space. Now we are seeing not only cubicles but low rise wall cubicles or trading style desks becoming the latest trend. All of this infringes on the personal space between staff and can get distracting at times.

So how does sound masking work to improve this environment? The idea is the system outputs a signal acceptable to the brain as common background noise. This background noise helps the brain not focus on other conversations or distracting noises within the space. Any sound can mask speech, if it is loud enough. Rain, water flow, background music, HVAC systems, locally controllable sources like radios, small one off “white noise” devices, or background music all can be used to mask unwanted sound. The problem with some of the smaller systems is that they are point source meaning they are one sound coming from one area making it very apparent what is making the “noise”, and noise is exactly what it is perceived to be. Well executed sound masking is an integral part of the environment and is accepted within the space as normal.

There are a few variations on how the different systems implement their solutions. The two concepts are “In Plenum” and “In Field” and there are advantages on both sides. The “In Plenum” systems are far easier to install with a lot less parts for the coverage area. This is due to the fact that they live above the ceiling tiles in the areas and one speaker can cover a much larger indirect area. The “In Field” speakers are installed in an approximate 10′ x 10′ grid with all speakers installed in the ceiling facing down under the tiles. This system provides great even coverage of the space and also give you the ability to provide paging over the speakers as well.

Now that we know the different types of systems we need to understand where you need to have them installed. In the corporate environment the usual areas are open spaces, private offices or common areas. In open cubicle space the obvious benefit is to not hear the worker next to you, in the private offices it is so you can’t hear the office next to you, and in common areas is to protect people walking by a conference room from hearing things happening inside. You don’t want to have sound masking installed inside of conference rooms as this will hurt the environment and make it harder to hear fellow people. One of our engineers Steve Kerr likened it to a car at a stop sign and you can easily talk to the people in the car, but at 60Mph it is very hard to hear each other due to the wind noise. So adding sound masking into a conference room will only make it harder for people to hear you and remote phone/video participants will also hear the sound masking making it harder to communicate.

By April 2003 all healthcare facilities and institutions must demonstrate that they have “reasonably safeguard[ed] protected health information (PHI) — including oral information — from any intentional or unintentional use or disclosure that is in violation of the rule, see §164.530(c) (2)” — the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.HIPAA Privacy Rules require implementation of administrative, technical, and physical means to safeguard protected patient health information, including oral communications. Oral privacy can be precisely defined by existing standards from the International Standards Organization (ISO), American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM). The standards can provide a framework within which Chief Compliance Officers can demonstrate compliance with HIPAA and GLBACompliance with HIPAA and GLBA regulations is one of the most important reasons that medical offices should consider utilizing sound masking technology to insure, among other things, that conversations remain private.Here are some articles explaining HIPAA requirements regarding privacy:
HIPAA and Oral Communications By Hannah Fiske, Editor Everyone is talking about compliance. Privacy and security of medical information is THE hot topic in health care at the moment. But just because you have installed the latest security devices to protect your electronic and paper-based medical records systems, does not mean it is time to relax, for there is another issue waiting for attention. In fact, many in the health care industry may find their attention captured by a little-discussed aspect of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): oral communications. More
HIPAA Quiz: What is “Oral Privacy”? By David M. Sykes and Susan A. Miller, JD Most healthcare professionals have barely noticed this part of HIPAA. But you’d better learn fast: the deadline is still April 2003. More
HIPAA FAQ: Little-known “F.A.Q.s” about HIPAA More
Recognized Standards Related to Predicting, Evaluating and Measuring Speech Intelligibility and Privacy Parameters
Additional Information
Eight Simple Recommendations for Good Acoustical Etiquette in the Open Plan Office – Technical Bulletin #15
Some common-sense guidelines for satisfactory acoustical etiquette in open offices.

Herman Miller Productivity Study
Sound Masking in the Office: Reduce Noise Distractions to Increase Worker Productivity.
A study by Elaine Lewis, Peter Lemieux, David Sykes and Thomas Horrall.

The Color of Sound, What is White Noise?
As acousticians we often encounter the statement “I like pink noise better than white noise” – or some variant – when lay people discuss speech privacy or electronic background sound systems.

Background Sound Level and Uniformity Preferences in the Open Office
Acoustical comfort is an important goal of modern office design. But what factors actually contribute to the perception of acoustical comfort?
What Makes Sound Masking Systems Sound Good?
There is no magic. Any continuous loud noise will mask conversations. The trick is to use a masking sound that is both effective and unobtrusive. A masking sound should be pleasant and easily ignored.

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