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Landmark legal win for musician with acoustic shock

A classical musician who suffered permanent hearing damage as a result of being exposed to noise levels of more than 130bB has won a legal victory over the Royal Opera House (ROH), in a judgment that could have wide-ranging implications for the British music industry.

Chris Goldscheider, a ROH viola player, suffered ‘acoustic shock’ – a condition with symptoms including pain, tinnitus and nausea, caused by hearing an unexpected loud sound – during a rehearsal for a performance of Wagner’s The Valkyrie in September 2012. Goldscheider was seated in the opera house’s orchestra pit (pictured), where peak noise levels reached 130.8dB – louder than a modern jet engine – according to the High Court judgment.

Goldscheider’s claim centred on the orchestra’s alleged violation of the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005, which compel employers to reduce the risk to employees’ health by controlling the noise they are exposed to while at work.

Finding in Goldscheider’s favour, judge Nicole Davies said there is a “clear factual and causal link between identified breaches of the regulations and the high level of noise which ensued at the rehearsal. It commenced with an inadequate risk assessment, [and] continued with a failure to undertake any monitoring of noise levels in the cramped orchestra pit with a new orchestral configuration which had been chosen for artistic reasons.”

While the musician wore earplugs during “those parts of the rehearsal when he felt he needed them”, according to court documents, the noise from the brass section behind him was still “overwhelming”.

“Sound is not a byproduct of an industrial process but is an essential part of the product itself”

Goldscheider “now lives a relatively quiet life”, and “has learnt to avoid the noises which trigger the symptoms – for example, the vibrations from a large supermarket fridge or the noise in a restaurant”. His injuries, he says, have “decimated his professional life and made his partner’s professional life very difficult, as she is a member of the ROH orchestra”.

In a statement to the BBC, the ROH says it had received medical advice that long-term hearing damage could not be caused by an isolated incident of exposure to live music. “We have been at the forefront of industry wide attempts to protect musicians from the dangers of exposure to significant levels of performance sound, in collaboration with our staff, the Musicians’ Union, acoustic engineers and the Health and Safety Executive,” says a spokesperson.

“Although this judgment is restricted to our obligations as an employer under the Noise Regulations, it has potentially far-reaching implications for the Royal Opera House and the wider music industry.

“We do not believe that the Noise Regulations can be applied in an artistic institution in the same manner as in a factory – not least because in the case of the Royal Opera House, sound is not a byproduct of an industrial process but is an essential part of the product itself.”

“This has been a complex case and we will consider carefully whether to appeal the judgment,” the venue concludes.

Damages payable to Goldscheider will be assessed at a later date.


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