Professional Musicians and Noise-induced Hearing Loss
By Justin Stewart
“If music be the food of love, play on,” William Shakespeare wrote in the play “Twelfth Night.” Indeed, the emotional swell of an orchestra is a wonderful thing to experience. But for musicians, high noise levels during rehearsals and performances could subject them to excessive noise exposure, which could lead to irreversible noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and/or incurable tinnitus. A recent landmark legal case at the Royal Opera House in London, England, could send metaphorical shockwaves across the industry—but more on that later.

Professional musicians are at work like the 22 million Americans who are regularly exposed to potentially damaging noise each year while on the job. That’s about 17 percent of the full-time U.S. work force, according to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These occupational exposures are in addition to any recreational noise exposures that workers might accumulate from activities such as shooting, attending live music events, or just wearing earphones.

OSHA estimates that the annual spend for hearing loss is $1.5 million in penalties and $240 million in worker’s compensation claims—small prices to pay for one of our vital senses. The average claim, according to the database of the California Workers’ Compensation Institute, was just $6,688 for 888 closed hearing loss claims between 2000 and 2012 compared to an average of $10,325 for the other 2.69 million closed worker’s compensation claims for the same period. Higher figures have been quoted elsewhere, but the problem is that there is no central repository.

It is said that if our ears literally bled, people might be more aware of the issue or workers might be more likely to take up a claim against an employer. However, workers typically only file claims following a plant closure or after leaving employment, by which time the damage may have already been done. The long-term nature of noise exposure, which involves a combination of both noise level and exposure time (that is, the concept of a dose), can accumulate and cause hearing impairment over the course of a working lifetime. Some people won’t notice the effects of hearing loss until retirement, but some workers notice it sooner.

For example, a 2016 study reported that student musicians in the U.S. were exposed to daily noise doses that exceeded both OSHA standards and more stringent NIOSH standards. The study determined that student musicians aged 18 to 25 years already exhibited a degree of NIHL, with 78 percent showing a “noise notch” at 4,000 Hz. This notch (see figure 1) is a characteristic of NIHL that will widen and deepen with further exposure if hearing is left unprotected.
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