Back to the list

Rude Awakenings Harm Health 

A submission to the Environmental Protection Agency to change noise curfews

Australian society favours the morning. 

At least in theory; in practice, however, ~30% of us are simply not on form first thing in the morning, and are better off starting and finishing their day later. Most of us don't have that 'luxury' - and we shouldn't need it. Sleep patterns are not a luxury, we have different 'set-points', and need systems which recognise us as people, not robots.

Our systems haven't caught up with current and emerging understanding of health though, and continue to push us all to start at the crack of dawn. Night Owls, who can't consistently get to sleep early enough to compensate, simply end up with not enough sleep. Often work is the cause, but more and more often, people living in suburbia are awoken by loud equipment, otherwise intended to make life easier. Planning a later morning, no matter how crucial, can be outside of one's control. Sleep is extremely important to all areas of health, but mental health especially; regulations which allow for noisy power tools and leaf blowers to be used at 7am in the morning don't really fit an inclusive society.

Between June 9th and July 7th, 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency called for submissions on proposed updates to the Environment Operations (Noise Control) Regulation 2017 and the accompanying Regulatory Impact Statement.

Free Flight Emu's principal submitted the following:

"I strongly disagree that the regulation achieves the right balance between the community’s right to peace and quiet and to carry out legitimate yet noisy activities. Allowing power tools and other excessively noisy machinery to be used from 7 AM on weekdays at 8 AM otherwise, when on residential premises, seems to assume that everybody has the same lifestyle and circadian rhythm; this is simply not true. 

People fall into different chronotypes – natural sleep time patterns over which we have little real control. The one-third of society who naturally sleep and rise later, consistently get less sleep. This is harmful to their health, and a hindrance to their productivity. Arguably it is also a risk to the health of those around them, when considering occupational and other risks (such as driving).

Going to bed early does not effectively solve this problem. Those for whom this works fall into the middle third (‘intermediate type’), but ‘late types’ will be unable to sleep and/or get very poor-quality sleep (or require ongoing pharmaceutical aid, which creates dependency). 23% of the late types have more than 2 hours’ potential sleep debt per night, as compared to 3% of the Larks and Intermediate types combined (Levandovski et al, 2011). In context, 1.75 million Australians (23m x .33 x .23) already struggle to reconcile their biological requirements with their lives. It is inherent to their needs to sleep (and wake) later, and failing to do so has demonstrably harmful effects upon health. Mental health, in particular, is known to deteriorate as a result of sleep deprivation, which can create more barriers to sleeping early - a vicious cycle into which this regulation would feed (as indeed does the current version).

Equally, some people with disabilities naturally require a later start in the morning. In some cases due to sleep interference due to illness or medication, in other cases due to the nature of the condition itself. For these individuals, such an early end to noise curfews perpetuates social barriers to disability inclusion, and inasmuch is a contravention of Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and COAG commitments to address these. This is indirect, but nonetheless systemic, discrimination.

Furthermore, according to the ABS , in 2009, 17.2% of the population were shift workers, 58% of which had no say in their start or finish times. 7am noise allowances creates unreasonable uncertainty for these people, who simply cannot rely on getting a full night’s sleep. Often these workers’ jobs put heavy machinery or lives under their care in which fatigue can cause fatal error (e.g. in the case of forklift drivers and riggers; carers; nurses and doctors, etc.). 

Similarly, allowing loud machinery to commence at 7am creates circumstances in which commuters who can’t sleep until late but are awoken early, have to take to the roads without enough sleep. Considering 30% of the population are night owls, and that >50% of which live in cities which by way of density are more likely to result in noise disturbances and high traffic, that’s an alarming thought. 

Our culture has a clear bias towards early mornings, yet the evidence does not indicate that rising early comes naturally to the majority, nor that it is beneficial to force oneself to do so. Rather, the harmful effects of arbitrary earliness are clear. Modern regulation should reflect modern understanding of societal requirements. 

Australia’s heat does of course present challenges to noise regulations, I do recognise. Just as it is unreasonable to expect everybody to be awake at a certain time, it is impractical and irresponsible to allow persons who have to work outdoors to do so in conditions which may cause them harm or restrict their abilities. 7am pushes this too far, however, 9am would be far more appropriate, although still not ideal for shift workers. In their case, at least, choice of profession is (to some degree) within their control, although the same argument can be made for builders and gardeners, but not the residents that their activities disturb.

Of these, 23% of the late types have more than 2 hours’ potential sleep debt per night, as compared to 3% of the Larks and Intermediate types combined. In context, 1.75 million Australians (23m x .33 x .23) already struggle to reconcile their biological requirements with their lives. This regulation presents an opportunity to improve their circumstances.

This regulation perpetuates the social expectation that people should, at the very least, be able to rise early, which creates de facto discrimination. Inasmuch it creates an unreasonable burden on a third of the population, reduces productivity (efficiency; error; and attendance suffer when workers are tired), public and individual health, and compromises freedom of choice (pertaining to sleep and employment), and of peaceful enjoyment of one’s home. 

This legislative change provides an opportunity to address systemic discrimination, and by extension affect de facto discrimination, by reducing barriers to (and costs of) population health, and disability inclusion. I believe the EPA has a responsibility to respond accordingly, and suggest a start time of 0900 for loud equipment, including leaf blowers, power tools, and heavy machinery.

​Thank you for considering my submission."