As a brass player myself I was interested to see the outcome of the appeal to the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal in the case of Royal Opera House v Goldscheider. Although the case did not involve a criminal prosecution, the breaches of Health and Safety Regulations could have led to convictions if a different course had been pursued. As it was the Court had to consider the health and safety aspects of a civil claim for damages by Mr Goldscheider, a professional viola player.
During rehearsals for the performance of the Ring cycle by Wagner at the Royal Opera House, Mr Goldscheider was seated directly in front of the brass section (trumpets, trombones and tuba). The orchestra was positioned in a pit which was partly overhung by the stage. There were ninety performers. Although he wore earplugs, by the third day of rehearsal Mr Goldscheider had suffered injury to hearing which ended his professional career.
It seems that the bell of a trumpet situated immediately behind Mr Goldscheider produced noise levels reaching 133 decibels which is roughly equivalent to that of a jet engine.
The Court found that repositioning of the space between the violas and the brass section and the splitting up of the brass section led to a significant reduction in noise. The Court also found that although earplugs had been issued to players, they made it difficult to hear other players and the conductor and so there was no rule in force that the earplugs had to be worn.
The Court of Appeal decided that the orchestra pit, configured in the way that it had been and with the overhanging stage contributing to the sound pressure, should have been designated a “Hearing Protection Zone”. There should have been appropriate signage. Interestingly, the Court found that although it would have been possible to require earplugs to be worn all the time that would not have been reasonably practicable as it would not have been consistent with the players being able to perform. Therefore, it was right to leave the wearing of the earplugs to the discretion of the players. However, the failure of the Royal Opera House to take the steps necessary to reduce excessive exposure to noise to the lowest level reasonably practicable made it liable to the viola player for the injury he suffered.
Mr Goldscheider’s injuries were caused by a condition caused acoustic shock. It seems that this is the first time that acoustic shock – involving symptoms of tinnitus, dizziness and hypersensitivity to everyday noise has been recognised as an injury which can be compensated by the Court.
The case demonstrates that orchestras and orchestral spaces are not exempt from Health and Safety legislation and that they are work places just as factories are work places.
All orchestras and bands will be worried. However, the Court was keen to allay concerns as far as it could. Having considered the evidence in the case, it seemed to the Court that most musical venues would not be faced with the same problems found at the Royal Opera House. Even where there was an enclosed space for performers, a comparatively small repositioning of the layout of the orchestra pit would provide a marked reduction in the sound pressure and, therefore, potential for injury.