Whatever the final outcome, the legal case between the Royal Opera House and musicians around hearing loss is likely to have significant ramifications for theatres and the entertainment industries, as Tim Turney explains.
“If music be the food of love, play on,” William Shakespeare famously wrote in the play Twelfth Night. And, of course, the emotional atmosphere of an orchestra is a wonderful thing to experience.
About the author
Tim Turney is technical product manager at in dust, noise and vibration monitoring specialist Casella
However, high noise levels during rehearsals and performances subjects the musicians to excessive noise exposure, potentially leading to irreversible noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and incurable tinnitus.
To this day, the landmark legal case at the Royal Opera House continues to send shockwaves across the industry. Back in March last year, the UK High Court judge ruled that a viola player could sue his employer, the Royal Opera House. The allegation was following the musician’s occupational acoustic shock and irreparable hearing damage, forcing him to give up his music career.
Although earplugs had been provided to the orchestra, the court revealed that the Royal Opera House had provided insufficient hearing protection. The employer had left it to the musicians to decide whether they wanted to wear the protection or not, resulting in musicians choosing to not wear the correct protective equipment.
The judge ruled that the orchestra pit should be a forced “hearing protection zone” meaning the Royal Opera House has to instruct all musicians to wear hearing protection at all times while they are in the zone. By following the judge’s ruling, the Royal Opera House will comply with the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 and prevent musicians from the health concerns caused by excessive noise.
The case ended with the judge ruling that the musician had suffered acoustic shock in his right ear resulting in periodic imbalance and the end of his musical career. Last October the Royal Opera House was granted permission to challenge the high court ruling, an appeal it lost in April.
Irrespective of the legal toing and froing, this case has been a game-changer in the musical theatre industry. It has forced employers in the industry to question whether musicians are protected from noise-induced hearing loss and how are they monitoring if musicians are playing in levels below or above the current restrictions?
The scale of the problem
A 2015 survey ran by Help Musicians UK showed that 78% of people who suffered from hearing problems in their career believed that being a musician was the cause.
Additionally, 68% of musicians had not received a hearing test in the past three years. When asked on their experiences with hearing protection, 81% of the musicians believed they should use it but only 67% had actually ever worn suitable hearing protection.
The survey revealed that musicians can be reluctant to protect their hearing – becoming complacent when using hearing protection equipment especially when employers are not enforcing them to be worn.
Nevertheless, the risk of occupational hearing damage is incredibly high and musicians are at risk every day that appropriate protection is not worn and levels of noise are not efficiently monitored.
The long-term nature of noise exposure, which involves a combination of both noise level and exposure time, can accumulate and cause hearing impairment over the course of a working lifetime. Some people will not notice the effects of hearing loss until retirement, but some individuals will notice the effects faster.
Increase in noise-induced hearing loss
Between 2015/16 and 2017/18 an additional 23,000 work-related hearing problems were reported in the UK. The increase in reports means the occupational hazard of noise is becoming a priority particularly in sectors including construction and food manufacturing.
However, the musical theatre industry has previously been often overlooked as a hazardous industry despite the high risks of noise-induced hearing loss to professional musicians.
Protecting the health, safety and welfare of their workforce is the responsibility of the employer, who has an obligation by law to assess the level of risk in the workplace. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 came into force for all industry sectors in Great Britain on 6 April, 2006, but the regulation came in force in the music and entertainment sectors on 6th April 2008.
Therefore, employers working in musical theatre are legally obligated to ensure musicians working in their premises are protected from the risks from excessive noise.
Cost to the NHS
In the last few years, occupational and noise-induced hearing loss and deafness is estimated to have directly costed the NHS £450m. Such costs emphasise the financial strain UK healthcare is experiencing because of noise damage and occupational hearing loss.
This cost is only expected to increase, with 14.5 million people estimated to be suffering from hearing loss by 2031, meaning occupational health practitioners can expect to see a rise in the demand of patients suffering from hearing damage.
Such a rise in ill-health will cause a significant strain on healthcare, which may require training to ensure all occupational health practitioners can support the increasing number of patients suffering with hearing loss and damage.
How is such a preventable problem becoming a huge cost to the NHS and the UK health care? Employers need to act now to reduce the risk of occupational hearing loss and prevent the rising numbers of people suffering from hearing damage in the UK.
Protecting against noise-induced hearing loss
What, then, is the answer to noise-induced hearing loss? Education has a part to play in raising awareness; the rise in legal cases should help increase conversation and highlight employer responsibility.
Noise monitoring solutions are important to tackle the risks associated with noise-induced hearing loss. Monitoring solutions allow employers to take noise exposure measurements, which can be easily evaluated to see if employees are working in levels of excessive noise, breaching The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005.
The noise exposure measurements are retrieved using handheld sound level meters or personal noise dosimeters that collect data on noise levels, which can be used in risk assessments. Modern dosimeters can even be connected by Bluetooth to a mobile phone app. Employers can easily navigate the app to monitor measurements from multiple dosimeters remotely, meaning employers can measure the levels of noise without disturbing musicians.
Monitoring levels of noise allows employers to measure the levels of noise exposure. This data can be used to mandate musicians wearing earplugs as a first step and then look to control measures such as acoustics screens to reduce exposure as much as possible.
Protecting workforces across the UK from occupational ill health is vital in reducing the number of ill health reports occurring at work every year. At Casella, we are dedicated to reducing occupational health and environmental risks and supporting businesses solve their monitoring and analysis needs.
Royal Opera House breached noise regs in “acoustic shock” case, High Court rules, March 2018, Health and Safety at Work, https://www.healthandsafetyatwork.com/news-and-prosecution/royal-opera-house-breached-noise-regs-acoustic-shock-case-high-court-rules
‘Royal Opera House to appeal against musician’s hearing loss ruling, Personnel Today, October 2018’, https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/goldscheider-v-royal-opera-house-appeal/
‘Musicians are four times more likely to suffer hearing damage’, Help Musicians UK, November 2015, https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/news/latest-news/musicians-are-four-times-more-likely-to-suffer-hearing-damag
Noise induced hearing loss in Great Britain, Health and Safety Executive, http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/deafness/index.htm
Noise regulations, Musicians Hearing Services, https://www.musicianshearingservices.co.uk/what-we-do/noise-regulations/
The Real Cost of Adult Hearing Loss (2014), The Ear Foundation, https://www.earfoundation.org.uk/research/adult-strategy-reports/the-real-cost-of-adult-hearing-loss-2014
Wilson, Martha W. AuD; Ennis, Cydney, ‘Hit the Right Notes with Musician Earplugs’, The Hearing Journal, June 2016 – vol 69, issue 6, p8-9, available online at https://journals.lww.com/thehearingjournal/Fulltext/2016/06000/Hit_the_Right_Notes_with_Musician_Earplugs.6.aspx
Pallarito, Karen, ‘Work-Related Hearing Loss Claims: Conclusive Data Prove Elusive’, The Hearing Journal: April 2013 – vol 66, issue 4, p28,29,30, available online at https://journals.lww.com/thehearingjournal/fulltext/2013/04000/Work_Related_Hearing_Loss_Claims___Conclusive_Data.10.aspx