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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Music to their ears

Music to their ears


Victoria Handley explains what the new noise regulations mean for the entertainment industry and how best to address hearing loss

Continued exposure to loud noise is a well-known risk factor for development of various hearing disorders. A Norwegian study published in 2007 found that permanent hearing loss occurred in 20 per cent of the rock musicians who took part in seven studies. They found that tinnitus and hyperacusis appeared significantly more often in rock musicians than in non-musicians.

Meanwhile, in a separate Swedish study where 139 rock/jazz musicians took part, 74 per cent were found either to have hearing loss, tinnitus, hyperacusis, distortion and/or diplacusis.

New noise regulations

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (the Noise Regulations) came into force for all industry sectors in Britain on 6 April 2006 except for the music and entertainment sectors where they will come into force on 6 April 2008. Those sectors should in the meantime comply with existing noise regulations.

There is a need for those involved in the music industry, pubs and clubs and orchestras to consider the Regulations and put systems in place to protect their employees.

Whether you are a musician who regularly tours (be it rock, jazz or classical) or work next to a loudspeaker in a pub or club, prolonged exposure to loud noises is dangerous. In large or small venues, with sound output amplified and combined with the crowd volume, the sustained level of noise can lead to ringing and pain in the ears. Exposure to any type of music will cause hearing loss over time, but professional musicians suffer the worst due to the frequency of exposure.

Hearing loss is caused by damage to fragile tissue strands and hairs of the cochlea in the ear caused by noise overexposure. The danger starts at 85'“90 decibels (dB) and at this level you risk permanent damage after four hours' exposure.

For instance, an MP3 player at high volume registers about 105dB which can cause tinnitus. Many pubs and clubs have decibels over 110dB.

What the regulations will mean for the industry

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 (the Noise Regulations) came into force 6 April 2006. For the music industry 6 April 2008 is the date when they must demonstrate compliance.

Since 2006 campaigners have been attacking the music and entertainment industry for not preparing measures to protect the hearing of bar and club workers.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People ( RNID) suggests that staff working where loud music is played should get ear plugs. But a poll of 200 businesses showed that over half of employers have no plans to make hearing protection available '“ despite new laws coming in next year. The RNID poll found that '68 per cent of employers were unaware they had to comply with the law and 55 per cent had no plans to make hearing protection available'. From 2008 employers will have to ensure staff are protected where noise exceeds 85 dB. Most clubs and some pubs and bars will exceed this.

Concern about compliance and monitoring involving the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities meant that in 2006 Capita Symonds Ltd completed a noise study to assess the noise exposure of groups of people within the industry and report back on the impact of the proposed legislation on 'live' music concerts. The report detailed the personal exposure of a cross section of staff working at 12 events throughout the year.

It explored the adequacy of any control measures in place and made recommendations for improvements. It found generally, personnel employed in the live entertainment industry are exposed to noise levels above the upper exposure action value. There is a resistance to the wearing of hearing protection and there is a need for education.

The results of a questionnaire sent to the Local Authorities in whose districts the events took place suggest that there is little or no enforcement of the current noise at work legislation taking place at these types of events. As a direct result of this research one promoter has equipped 20 members of staff with bespoke hearing protection.

This is a positive move and an indication that there is increasing awareness within the industry to the dangers of prolonged exposure to high noise levels. The regulations require employers to take action to protect workers at levels of noise five decibels lower than in the 1989 Regulations and now require health surveillance (hearing checks) for workers regularly exposed above 85dB.

The Noise Regulations require an employer to:

  • assess the risks to employees from noise at work;
  • take action to reduce the noise exposure that produces those risks;
  • provide employees with hearing protection if they cannot reduce the noise exposure enough by using other methods;
  • make sure the legal limits on noise exposure are not exceeded;
  • provide employees with information, instruction and training; and
  • carry out health surveillance where there is a risk to health.

Employers must take surveillance, training and protection seriously if they are to protect employees hearing and themselves from future claims.

Effect on classical musicians

While one would expect rock musicians to experience loud music, classical musicians '“ particularly those in orchestras '“ also experience high noise exposure. In one study, sound level measurements at the Lyric Theatre and Concert Hall in Gothenberg, Sweden, averaged 83 to 89 dBA. Hearing tests of 139 male and female musicians from both theatres indicated that 59 musicians (43 per cent) showed worse pure tone thresholds than would be expected for their age, with brass wind instrumentalists showing the greatest loss.

While a study in 1994/6 study of sound level measurements in the orchestra pits of nine Broadway shows in New York City showed average sound levels from 84 to 101 dBA, with a normal showtime of two hours.

With orchestral music 83 '“ 92dB intensity is measured in dB, and as it moves up the scale it deepens. This means that 90dB is 10 times more intense than 80dB; 100dB is 100 times more intense than 80dB. The sound intensity doubles for every increase of 3dB.

Suitable hearing protection

The ability to hear music properly and accurately is critical to a musician's career. Hearing impairment can end careers and it is therefore vital that musicians get access to the correct level of hearing protection.

Rehearsing and playing for up to 10 hours per day without adequate hearing protection puts musicians at risk. They should be provided with earplugs and specialist ear pieces. The regulations state that protective ear devices must reduce exposure to below 85dB and be suitable for the relevant work environment and equipment for the person wearing them. Research is needed into more advanced and job specific hearing protection.

There are a variety of earplugs available on the market made from varying materials including rubber, plastic, wax, foam and cotton. The Noise Reduction Ratio is used to determine their effectiveness. Sound intensity is decreased by approximately 15'“30dB when a musician is wearing earplugs or another kind of protective ear device like ear muffs.

Hearing protection zones should be marked accordingly and all non-essential staff excluded from these areas. All persons working within this zone should wear suitable hearing protection at all times. It is acknowledged within the report that this has major implications for sound engineers, although appropriate ear protection should be provided.

For people working in the areas near the stage such as concessions, first aid, merchandising stalls and bar staff, it is recommended that they are removed from areas of high noise where practicable.

Free foam earplugs

The Capita Symonds report then went further and recommended that flat response hearing protection (ER20s) are offered for sale at events for purchase by the audience.

In addition, it is recommended that a health warning is printed on every ticket and buckets of free foam earplugs are made available at the entrances for use by the public. Hearing protection zone notices should also be prominently displayed.

Speakers should be positioned to minimise exposure to personnel in the pit area. Where possible they should be situated above head height.

The use of in ear monitors for musicians and the reduction in use of stage monitors should be encouraged. This is likely to benefit the external environmental noise climate of the venue as well.

It is also recommended that consideration be given to the imposition of a maximum concert level (possibly in the form of a LAeq, 15min measured at FOH). However, further research needs to be conducted.

It is clear that the musician and leisure industry is slowing becoming aware of the need to protect employees hearing from loud noise. Urgent steps are needed now to educate employers and employees in the entertainment industry as to the likelihood of hearing damage and noise-induced hearing loss.

Vital research is being conducted but this needs to go further. What is not clear is whether employers will have such protection in place before the introduction of the regulations in April 2008. Thereafter, any exposure to loud noise over a sustained period resulting in hearing loss becomes actionable under the regulations.