Hearing damage at work is usually associated with noisy, often industrial working environments so it is of particular interest when a case emanates from the tranquil surroundings of London’s very own Covent Garden.
The case, involving viola player Chris Goldscheider, was something of a landmark case as it was the first time a musical institution has been found responsible for damaging the hearing of musicians. It is also the first time acoustic shock of itself has been recognised as an injury sounding in damages.
As a result of the ruling the Royal Opera House (ROH) has been found liable, leaving their insurers responsible for a £750,000 compensation claim and legal costs in addition.
In addition to this the ROH has an urgent need to re-think its policies and procedures and implement a possible re-design of “The Pit” or potentially face claims against them by other musicians.
The case highlights how one particular instance of poor health and safety provision can cause substantial hearing damage as Mr Goldscheider’s case was the result of damage sustained on just one evening.
Mr Goldscheider claimed he had sustained acoustic shock during the course of his employment at the ROH on Saturday 1 September 2012 when the orchestra was in the pit rehearsing Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’.
The damage was caused as a result of the way that the conductor arranged the orchestra, Mr Goldscheider was positioned immediately in front of a group of about 18 to 20 brass players.
The case focused on breaches of the defendant’s obligations under the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005. These regulations include the undertaking to provide employees with suitable hearing protection when noise levels exceed 80 decibels. The average noise level to which the claimant was exposed during the three hours, 15 minutes and 24 seconds representing the total measuring period was 91.8 dB.
Although he was wearing foam earplugs, the sensation from so many brass instruments playing directly behind him, in a confined area and at different frequencies and volumes, created “a wall of sound” which was completely different to anything he had previously experienced.
The lack of space and the proximity of the trumpets to the claimant’s ears meant that he was in the brass section’s “direct line of fire”. It was excruciatingly loud and painful and his right ear was particularly painful because the Principal trumpet was directed at that side of his head.
Mr Goldscheider was found to have suffered high frequency hearing loss and cochlear irritation. He attempted to return to work on a number of occasions but found it impossible. If he attempted to sit and play in the orchestra his symptoms worsened. He would feel terribly nauseous, dizzy and extremely unwell from the pain in his right ear. He also found it difficult to walk.
The last time he played in an opera was May 2013. Even practising on his own was difficult because the noise from his own instrument triggered the same symptoms.
Acoustic shock injury is a physiological response to noise. The ear is over stimulated and builds up a stock of toxic metabolites and from a physiological response it can move to the infliction of damage. The threshold varies for each individual.
The physical response to damage to the ear can comprise deafness, pain, tinnitus or dizziness or a combination of two or more. Acoustic shock differs from acute acoustic trauma in that the latter is experienced with exposure to extremely loud sounds, over 140 dB. Similarly, acoustic shock is unrelated to noise-induced hearing loss, in which repeated exposure to sounds of an intensity greater than 85 dB causes cochlear damage.