Statutory duties on the protection of hearing were extended to the music and entertainment industry in April, two years after the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 came into force in industrial workplaces in Britain.
During the transition period that has now ended, both the music industry and the Health and Safety Executive acknowledged that applying the Regulations to orchestras for the first time would pose a particularly delicate challenge. One result has been new web‑based compliance guidelines, “recognising that music is unusual as it is noise deliberately created for enjoyment and therefore practical guidelines are necessary to help workers, employers and freelancers in the music and entertainment sectors protect their hearing and safeguard their careers.” The HSE will publish the guidelines in July.1
While complying with the Regulations may be a challenge, the industry is well aware that many musicians risk hearing damage due to their work. “Control of noise risks in music is unusually difficult, but that does not excuse inaction. Musicians are unusually vulnerable to the consequences of noise-damaged hearing, so we must act to protect them,” the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) says.
Canadian research among rock musicians found 30% suffered some degree of hearing loss, and a Swedish study of orchestra musicians found that 42% had hearing losses greater than that expected for their ages. According to the medical charity Deafness Research UK: “Prolonged exposure to sounds over 80dB(A) can damage your hearing and the risk increases as the sound level increases. At 140dB(A), noise causes immediate injury to almost any unprotected ear.”
Despite the lack of a central database of representative noise measurements in the music industry, noise levels in many areas of an orchestra are high enough to cause hearing loss. The ABO guidance on musicians’ hearing2, revised this year, notes that: “On a bad day, brass players may reach an exposure of 100dB(A), as may a piccolo. We know that in general the brass have the highest exposures and the fiddles the lowest.”
Controlling orchestra noise can only be achieved by combining several measures, these include: altering the orchestra layout so that noisier sections are at the sides, rather than the back managing players’ exposure during both rehearsals and performances and using risers and marking scores to allow players to insert ear plugs at appropriate points. However, the ABO says: “Effective noise control in orchestras needs careful management – of the combination of control measures, of measures to counteract side effects, of people’s expectations and antipathies. Without careful management, there will be little protection, the possibility of an overall worsening of noise and health risks, and increased resistance to further attempts at hearing protection.”
As with other health and safety issues, protecting hearing among musicians and other groups of workers requires major change and commitment. “Noise management must be integrated into the daily life of an orchestra, and be controlled by management in consultation with players. Noise control is not a one-off issue, nor is it something for the players to sort out: noise control requires permanent change, and is a core management function,” says the ABO.
2 Association of British Orchestras (2008), A sound ear (II)