Would you consider taking your employer to court for hearing loss? In 2012, viola player Chris Goldscheider won a landmark case against the Royal Opera House after his hearing was irreversibly damaged during a rehearsal for a Wagner opera. He was sat directly in front of the brass section, which – at its most thunderous – exceeded 130 decibels, roughly the equivalent level of a jet engine taking off. Despite the ROH claiming that long- term hearing damage can’t be caused by exposure to an isolated live music incident, Goldscheider won the case against the venue and shook up the music industry’s long-held belief that it is exempt from regulating noise levels, like other industries – such as construction – are required to do by law.
The musician suffered ‘acoustic shock’, a condition that includes tinnitus (a ringing in the ears), hyperacusis (sensitivity to everyday noises) and dizziness. It was a case that DJ and tinnitus campaigner Anne Savage hopes will change the industry’s perception of sound exposure leading to hearing loss. “I believe most workers in this industry have a fatalistic view of hearing damage and see it as just “part of the job” which simply should not be the case,” she tells PSNEurope. “It will be interesting to see if this continues to change after the viola case, I’m sure it will impact how seriously venue operators take the regulations.”
Savage is an ambassador for the British Tinnitus Association’s Plug ‘Em campaign, which was developed to help inform people about protecting their hearing when they attend music events. For the live music professional, hearing protection is crucial, but as a guest lecturer on noise safety in the dance music industry, Savage notes that “most students and workers genuinely think it won’t happen to them”. “A surprising amount of workers in the industry do not understand how the ear works or how hearing damage happens,” she says.
According to the BTA, approximately one in 10 people experience persistent tinnitus, and 30% of people will experience it at least once in their lives. But knowing more about the condition can help you deal with it better, as Savage knows from personal experience. She says: “I became an ambassador because I’m passionate about raising awareness of the dangers of exposure to loud noise at gigs and festivals. I have had tinnitus for over 10 years now and I got it through DJing which I have been doing for 25 years. I now have to limit the amount of time I spend in a live venue before and after my DJ set and I always wear earplugs.”
In February last year, Help Musicians UK (HMUK) teamed up with the BTA to announce plans for new research into the condition’s effect on musicians and those working in the industry. The partnership extends HMUK’s commitment to hearing protection, with the charity already offering subsided audiological assessments, custom-made earplugs, expert advice and wax removal to members of its Musicians’ Hearing Health Scheme, which is open to all working in sound, too. Savage says: “Sound engineers need to hear the music at the same level as the audience and that is where the problem lies, it is mainly up to the individual to take up hearing protection in our industry.”
“Everyone should protect themselves from exposure to loud sound, as we need our hearing to do our work,” she said. “Tinnitus can cause depression and seriously impact quality of life. I get isolated in social situations such as at restaurants because I can’t single out a person’s voice from the background noise. I have to accept that I will never hear silence again, and I could have prevented it by wearing earplugs and taking steps such as turning the monitors down between mixes when I DJ.”
While there’s no fix-all cure, things such as regular exercise or listening to ambient sounds to help you sleep can help take the pressure off not being able to hear silence. The BTA holds local support groups and has a dedicated telephone helpline listed on its website – the only one available worldwide – where you can also read extensive information on everything you need to know, including advice on how to prevent the condition and tips for coping if you have it.
Savage says: “I listen to relaxing playlists of nature sounds to zone out the ringing. I also always wear attenuating earplugs and keep some spares in my bag. Take breaks from sound as often as you can whilst working – especially in the studio – as your ears get used the volume and you end up turning it up and up throughout the session otherwise. Plus, remember to add up rehearsal time and soundchecks into your calculations on how much sound you’ve been exposed to in a day.”