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Hearing, Health and Safety at Work

As we await the judgment in a landmark case on hearing damage and health and safety law, Musicians’ Union (MU) Assistant General Secretary Naomi Pohl comments on the cause and extent of hearing problems affecting musicians.

A former member of the Royal Opera House orchestra has taken the company to court. He claims his ex-employer was negligent in its responsibilities under health and safety legislation and that he suffered irreversible hearing damage while he was working there. As we await the judgment, Musicians’ Union (MU) Assistant General Secretary Naomi Pohl comments on the cause and extent of hearing problems affecting musicians.

It is very difficult to ascertain just how many musicians are affected by work-related hearing problems. Anecdotally, I am often told by MU members that they have problems ranging from slight hearing loss to constant tinnitus. However, not everyone wants to admit that they are suffering because they may fear losing work as a result. This possibly leads to musicians struggling on and putting up with pain and discomfort on a regular basis, rather than taking sick leave or cancelling gigs. You can’t blame anyone for this; music is a fragile line of work even if you’re at the top of your game. Almost every freelancer fears their work will dry up tomorrow and most employed musicians knows they occupy an enviable seat.

If you are permanently employed by an orchestra or in the West End on a long-running show, you should feel secure in the knowledge that your employer has a duty of care towards you and cannot dismiss you at short notice if you suffer health problems. That said, many musicians still feel less than inclined to admit they have a hearing issue to their bosses. This goes for all sorts of physical conditions, it isn’t specific to hearing health. I have personally represented several musicians who’ve had to leave their jobs as a result of conditions that have been career-ending. What’s never been categorically tested in a court of law, as far as I’m aware, is the extent to which the employer is directly responsible and therefore liable for these injuries. 
One of the fundamental questions at the heart of the Royal Opera House case is whether they knew noise levels were unreasonably high, and whether they did enough to protect their employees from the effects of it. Yes, they have a sophisticated noise document which sets out the many ways they try to protect orchestra members from hearing damage. However, was this enough and, if not, did they know all along it wasn’t? 
Musicians with intensive schedules of performance, particularly those who work regularly in confined pit environments, are likely to suffer more than most in my experience. Employers and engagers are aware of the problems associated with regular exposure to high levels of noise and while they make some steps to mitigate it, the art tends to come first. An interesting aspect of the Royal Opera House’s defence is that they believe limiting noise levels will damage their artistic output. Are they therefore saying they think the risk to the musicians they employ is justifiable because their performances are world-class? Would it not be possible to reach the same artistic standards at a lower volume? 
Whether or not these questions are answered in the judgment remains to be seen. If the judge does take a view, this could have a significant impact on other artistic institutions. However, it is possible the decision will come down to the medical evidence presented by each side and whether liability can be proven. We await the outcome with interest.
Are you a musician suffering with a hearing problem? Contact your Regional Office for confidential advice. 
Did you know we also offer a Musicians’ Hearing Scheme, in partnership with Musicians Hearing Services and Help Musicians UK? It costs £30 for MU members, and includes hearing assessments and bespoke earplugs. Find out more. 
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Published: 19/02/2018

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