HR Strange But True!
April 24, 2008

A new work rule from the European Union, the Noise at Work Regulation, is out to protect the hearing of all workers by capping "workweek" exposure to excessive noise at an average 85 decibels. And no, it's not just the men on jackhammers who are affected, but also musicians in tuxedo jackets!

According to an article in the New York Times, the reg, effective this month, has musicians in EU countries wearing decibel-measuring devices at rehearsals. And no, it's not just at rock concerts; symphony orchestras and opera companies are also affected. Seems "fortissimo" levels of classical music can reach over 95 decibels, and, taking in average exposure at long rehearsals and then performances, would leave musicians in the position of having to wear earplugs while playing.

The reg, supported by EU member states, the European Commission, trade unions, and employers' federation, was initially designed to protect workers in traditionally "noisy" occupations in manufacturing, mining, and construction. It was estimated by the EU that one-third of European workers are exposed to dangerous levels of noise for at least one-quarter of their working hours.

However, the reg and its protection requirements cover all employees, and some musicians are incensed about the potential requirement for earplugs or protective muffs. "It's like saying to a racing-car driver that they have to wear a blindfold," said Alan Garner, oboist and chairman of the Player's Committee of the Royal Opera House to the NYT.

Music venues are trying to mitigate the noise by installing noise-absorbing panels around performers and surrounding the players with screens during rehearsals. The whole issue has even gone high-tech, with computers used to ascertain the optimum the seating of players of certain instruments during the performance of certain compositions.

Conductors are also being asked to have music played softly at practices and not to go for a big fortissimo finish at the end of pieces in order to keep levels acceptable, causing some maestros to groan about having their artistic interpretations compromised. One performance in Switzerland caused a noise-related disruption in a performance when the music in a certain portion of Berg's "Wozzeck" reached 120 decibels. Strange but True! editors wonder what will happen when the "1812 Overture" is performed--pop guns instead of cannons?

Musicians with the biggest problem with the reg seem to be bagpipers. "You can't play the pipe quietly; they haven't got a volume switch," one piper blogged, "Those Euroweenies should just butt out."

Sources: New York Times, via the ABA Journal; and Jeffrey Quick's Blog @ Case University

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