A landmark court case this month saw a viola player who suffered a life-changing hearing injury win against the Royal Opera House, taking health and safety in the workplace to a new level.
Chris Goldscheider, a celebrated viola player who once played on stage with Kylie Minogue, was seated directly in front of the brass section of the orchestra for a rehearsal of Wagner’s thunderous opera Die Walkure in the famous orchestra pit at the Royal Opera House.
During that rehearsal, the noise levels exceeded 130 decibels, roughly equivalent to that of a jet engine, and his hearing was irreversibly damaged.
Now, for the first time ever, a judge has scrutinised the music industry’s legal obligations towards musicians’ hearing.
And the case is likely to have huge implications for the health and safety of musicians.
The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (Noise Regulations 2005) require employers to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety from exposure to noise at work. Employees have duties under the Regulations too.
The Regulations require you as an employer to:
- Assess the risks to your employees from noise at work;
- Take action to reduce the noise exposure that produces those risks;
- Provide your employees with hearing protection if you cannot reduce the noise exposure enough by using other methods;
- Make sure the legal limits on noise exposure are not exceeded;
- Provide your employees with information, instruction and training
- Carry out health surveillance where there is a risk to health.
Music to our ears
The latest case is controversial for two reasons.
Firstly, because in the past it has been difficult to apply Noise Regulations to an artistic institution in the same way you would a building site – especially when, in the case of the Royal Opera House, sound is not a by-product of an industrial process but is an essential part of the product itself.
And secondly, this is first time ‘acoustic shock’ has been recognised as a condition which can be compensated by a court.
Acoustic shock is a condition with symptoms including tinnitus, hyperacusis and dizziness.
Mr Goldscheider, from Bedfordshire, said as a result of his injury, he has to wear ear defenders to carry out everyday household tasks such as preparing food and is unable to listen to his 18-year-old son Ben – one of the country’s outstanding young French horn players.
But The Royal Opera House argued that acoustic shock does not exist, and that instead Mr Goldscheider had developed an entirely natural hearing condition, known as Meniere’s disease, at exactly the same time as the super-loud, high intensity noise burst behind his right ear.
The ROH also argued a balance had to be struck between preserving the artistic integrity of the music while doing everything possible to reduce the risk of damage to musicians’ hearing, that was an inevitable feature of playing long-term in an orchestra.
The pain of noise
Every day, we experience sound in our environment and normally, these sounds are at safe levels that don’t damage our hearing.
But sounds can be harmful when they are too loud, even for a brief time, or when they are both loud and long-lasting.
These sounds can damage sensitive structures in the inner ear and cause noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
NIHL can be immediate or it can take a long time to be noticeable. It can be temporary or permanent, and it can affect one ear or both ears.
Even if you can’t tell that you are damaging your hearing, you could have trouble hearing in the future.
The Royal Opera House argued that some hearing loss was justifiable but the judge pointed out that “the reliance upon artistic value implies that statutory health and safety requirements must cede to the needs and wishes of the artistic output of the Opera company, its managers and conductors.
“Such a stance is unacceptable. Musicians are entitled to the protection of the law, as is any other worker.”
Protect your employees
The Royal Opera House and other orchestras will now need to re-assess policies and procedures and the design of orchestra spaces to better protect musicians.
According to Help Musicians UK, the leading UK charity for professional musicians: “The unfortunate circumstances surrounding Chris’s tragic hearing loss reflect a growing number of hearing related issues, as highlighted in our 2015 hearing survey, where 59.5% of musicians said they had suffered hearing loss and 78% said working as a musician was a contributor to their hearing loss.”
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