Royal Opera House loses appeal against musician’s hearing loss ruling

The Royal Opera House has lost an appeal against a landmark ruling which found it liable for a musician’s severe hearing loss.

Last year the High Court found the ROH had contributed to Christopher Goldschieder’s “acoustic shock” because it had failed to act on complaints about noise levels from musicians after the orchestra had been rearranged during a rehearsal in 2012.

The new seating arrangement saw Goldschieder, who played the viola, sat directly in front of the horn section with the “bell” of a trumpet close to his ear.

Although he was provided with earplugs, Goldschieder claimed they did not offer sufficient protection from the noise levels, which were comparable to that of a jet engine on occasion. Furthermore, the earplugs did not allow musicians to hear the finer elements of the music they were playing.

Following the rehearsal, Goldschieder was diagnosed with high-frequency hearing loss, which has affected his personal life and has meant he has been unable to return to work as a musician.

After further complaints about the configuration were made, the ROH adjusted the orchestra’s layout to reduce prolonged exposure to high volume.

On appeal, the ROH argued that the hearing protection it offered its musicians was consistent with industry guidance. It claimed it was up to individuals to wear the earplugs provided, as the only way to enforce their use would involve staff members standing next to musicians as they were performing, which would be impractical.

The Court of Appeal judges unanimously dismissed its appeal, but agreed that it was not reasonably practicable for musicians to wear their earplugs at all times, or to require the ROH to enforce their use.

They agreed with the High Court’s judgment that the orchestra pit should be a designated “hearing protection zone”, with signs informing musicians and staff that hearing protection should be worn.

Judge Sir Brian Leveson also dismissed suggestions that the case would likely have ramifications on the wider music industry  – mainly because few venues would have the same space and configuration constraints as the ROH.

“What the case does underline is the obligation placed on orchestras to comply with the requirements of the legislation (having had two years within which to prepare),” the judgment says.

“It emphasises that the risk of injury through noise is not removed if the noise – in the form of music – is the deliberate and desired objective rather than an unwanted by-product (as would be the case in relation to the use of pneumatic machinery).

“The national and international reputation of the ROH is not and should not be affected by this judgment.”

You can read more about the ROH hearing loss case in this month’s issue of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine.

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