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Musician's hearing damaged by excessive noise

A professional musician has successfully claimed for exposure to excessive noise during an orchestra rehearsal. What led to his hearing being damaged and what lessons can other employers take from this case?

A viola player in the orchestra at the Royal Opera House was taking part in a rehearsal. The seating plan within the orchestra pit had been reconfigured, placing the viola desks in front of the brass section. The conditions in the pit were very cramped and Mr Goldscheider (G) had to sit in very close proximity to the principal trumpet.

While the orchestra was rehearsing, the noise levels in the orchestra pit came close to the peak sound pressure exposure limit of 140dB. When averaged out, G was exposed to 91dB during the course of the rehearsal.

G argued that he suffered from “acoustic shock” as a result of the conditions during the rehearsal, causing irreparable damage to his hearing. He had to give up his career as a professional musician, and had been unable to find alternative employment because his hypersensitivity to sound prevented him from being able to tolerate everyday noises.

The court found that his employer, The Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation, was in breach of several duties under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005. Its noise risk assessment was inadequate and it had failed to monitor the noise levels in the overcrowded orchestra pit. The new orchestral configuration had been chosen for artistic reasons and the impact on noise levels within the pit had not been managed. Members of the orchestra had complained about the noise levels following the morning’s rehearsal, but the afternoon session went ahead without any adjustments being made. The employer knew that the noise in the orchestra pit was likely to exceed the upper Exposure Action Value (EAV), but did not designate the area as a hearing protection zone requiring the use of ear protection. Instead, it was left to individual musicians to decide whether to wear ear plugs or not, and which ones to wear.

The court concluded that the employer’s failure to manage the noise levels in the orchestra pit had caused the damage to G's hearing. His compensation will be determined at a separate hearing. This case may lead to other musicians bringing similar claims, so the employer may well try to take it to the Court of Appeal (Goldscheider v The Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation [2018] EWHC 687 (QB)).

The requirements to control noise at work apply to all workplaces, even where “noise” is an integral part of the work, e.g an orchestra. This employer failed to go far enough to control the risks; it had failed to monitor the noise levels in the overcrowded orchestra pit. Employers must risk assess and monitor noise in the workplace, and take action to prevent exposure over prescribed levels.

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