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Case study

Arias for improvement

The case of a viola player whose loss of hearing was deemed a workplace-related injury has prompted the Royal Opera House to review its safety and health processes.

Nessun dorma is, arguably, the most famous aria in the whole of opera, thanks to the spine-tingling performances of the late Luciano Pavarotti. It means “none shall sleep” – and that was a fitting description of life for many of the staff at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, during August (see box below). 

While most people were enjoying the summer, the team at the 160-year-old listed building was busier than ever – checking, logging and cleaning thousands of pieces of equipment, upgrading and refurbishing crucial systems and set-ups, and generally ensuring that, when the curtain rose again at the start of performance season, there would be no bum notes.

Ensuring all this activity was performed safely was the company’s health and safety manager, Dominique Perrissin-Fabert, who has been in the role for four-and-a-half years. Before joining the Royal Opera House, she spent 15 years as an environmental health officer at Westminster City Council, where she was a member of the team responsible for inspection and enforcement in the entertainment sector, covering nightclubs, theatres and concert venues. 

As a result, she has the breadth of experience to cope with a workplace where, at any one time – and sometimes all at once – there may be work at height, hazardous substances, electricity, noise, lasers, slips and trips, confined spaces, stress, members of the public and fire risks to contend with. 

“And those are the straightforward issues,” says Perrissin-Fabert, laughing. “We also ‘hang’ people, ‘shoot’ people, throw them from windows – all the time. This can make applying the ‘as low as reasonably practicable’ (ALARP) principle rather challenging.”

Of course, she is talking about events during performances – operas and ballets – of which more than 300 are staged a year, attracting around 620,000 spectators to the venue. “Risk is part of the performances, and creatives will always try to push things to the max,” she says. 

“Designers, for instance, don’t always get the importance of the health and safety aspects but, at the same time, they cannot design with only health and safety in mind – that would be horrible.”

Perrissin-Fabert admits that she does sometimes have to argue with the opera or ballet director over how things could be done versus how they should be done, but usually they can compromise. As an example, she tells the story of a performance that involved a duel on one of the six lifts that can descend 9 m below the main stage and rise 6 m above it. 

“The lift was raised up a couple of metres and there was no edge protection, even though the performers had to run and jump around quite a bit. So we hired a fight director to train the performers to do it safely – this is called ‘rehearsed competency’. Also, we marked the platform with lines that only the performers, not the audience, could see, indicating the safe areas for them to remain within. I do often have to ask for specific training for the performers and I will overrule the creative director in these instances if necessary.”

The particular show’s stage or production manager tends to carry out the risk assessments, but risk management support will be called upon for specialised activities, such as the use of lasers and ‘flying’ equipment. There is also a full-time team dedicated to fire risk and control at the venue.

“You can’t curtail creativity, just control it,” says Perrissin-Fabert. “If we want to be a successful entertainment company, we have to be on the edge. We can’t play it safe. How much risk do we accept? That is the question. I don’t believe in zero risk.

Claim for damages

Unfortunately, this view was not entirely shared by the courts, before which the Royal Opera House found itself last year to answer claims of breach of duty and causation of injury to a member of its orchestra. 

In 2012, viola player Christopher Goldscheider, while rehearsing Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, sustained a hearing injury that ended his professional career. After an eight-day hearing in the High Court, his claim for damages for personal injury against the Royal Opera House was granted. 

Mrs Justice Nicola Davies found that Goldscheider had sustained acoustic shock and that it should have been compulsory for all orchestra musicians to wear protection all of the time during rehearsals and performances. She added there could be no interpretation of this by the musicians themselves. Since parts of the rehearsal and performance would exceed the exposure action value (85 dBA) set out in the Noise at Work Regulations 2005, the orchestra pit had to be a compulsory hearing protection area at all times. 

The judge then made a statement that Perrissin-Fabert shudders to repeat: “In this regard, there is no distinction between an opera house and a factory.”

Perrissin-Fabert says: “This ruling was disastrous for us, as the majority of an orchestra’s work is above 85 dBA. Also, orchestra members play by listening to each other. You can’t do that if you are wearing hearing protection. In fact, both Mr Goldscheider and his witness – a fellow musician who also suffered from tinnitus – said they wouldn’t be able to play with hearing protection all the time.”

The Royal Opera House appealed. However, Lords Justices Leveson, McCombe and Bean, sitting in the Court of Appeal in April 2019, agreed with the conclusions of the original judge on the medical outcome of the sound exposure and upheld her order in Goldscheider’s favour. Crucially, though, they accepted the Royal Opera House’s case that it was not reasonably practicable for players in its orchestra pit to perform if they were required to wear hearing protection at all times. They set aside the original judge’s findings in that regard, stating that musicians should wear protection when they can.

In a statement issued after the appeal decision, the Royal Opera House expressed its “disappointment” at aspects of the ruling but saw it as an opportunity for improvement. 

Perrissin-Fabert says: “We needed to be humble and look at our assumptions to determine where we went wrong, so that we could figure out how to do better. It’s about seizing the opportunity to improve. After the case and the judgments, we realised there was no point in being defensive. We needed to be dispassionate and take the emotion out of it. At the end of the day, we injured somebody, so how could we make something positive out of that?”

Orchestra members play by listening to each other, which you can’t do if you’re wearing hearing protection

 

The opera house in numbers

The Royal Opera House has 1,200 full-time employees: one-third are artistes (such as musicians, singers and dancers), one-third are technical staff (responsible for lighting, costumes and set- and prop-making) and the rest are support staff.

The organisation has a giant workshop in Thurrock, Essex, for metal-working, carpentry tasks and costume-making, as well as a “Wembley-sized” storage warehouse in Aberdare, south Wales.

The grid – the system of hydraulic “bars” that rise and descend above and behind the stage and which support the electrics, backdrops and flying harnesses for performers – features 108 bars, making it the largest in the UK.

There are 12,000 electrical items to be coded, tested and dusted during the August shutdown. Two teams work a rotation of 24-hour shifts to complete the task.

The company’s annual budget for ballet shoes alone is £500,000.

 

Hearing protection

In fact, the organisation hit all the right notes in the way it responded to the incident. After the initial court case, it drew up a long list of strands of work to be explored, including orchestra pit layout, dosimetry, hearing conservation plans, and collaborating with conductors and musicians. “We absolutely wanted to make a difference to protecting the hearing of our musicians,” says Perrissin-Fabert.

A new post was created to manage all of these efforts, but with one particular caveat. “We didn’t want a purely health and safety person,” she says. “A lot of the work focused on engagement with musicians, so we wanted someone who knew music and who had a scientific or research background. Luckily, we managed to find a singing, trumpet-playing researcher, so we hired him on a two-year contract.”

The experience has been “wonderful”, says Perrissin-Fabert, with myriad projects arising as a result. For example, a PhD student was brought onboard to research acoustic material, analysing diffusion and reflection of sound in the orchestra pit. The Royal Opera House carried out a study of the size of the pit to determine whether changing the layout would vary the sound and, if so, how feasible such a change would be. Not very, as it turned out. “It would have cost us millions to maybe reduce exposure by 1-1.5 dBA for only some of the musicians,” she explains.

She and her team also conducted trials with dosimeters. The results were explored with a leading acoustics and noise consultancy, whose portfolio includes sound monitoring for the Glastonbury Festival.

The Royal Opera House has also partnered with Middlesex University to redesign its risk assessments to take into account artistic benefits. Perrissin-Fabert says: “Risk assessments determine only the risk, not the benefit, and it was crucial for us to be able to document the benefit of the way we work. We are one of only two organisations in the UK to offer performers full-time work, so the benefit in this case is huge.”  

But even before the incident involving Goldscheider, the organisation was taking a keen interest in its employees. It has been running health surveillance programmes since 2008, so it now has 11 years of data with which to work. One of the pertinent findings has been that, rather than solely losing hearing, musicians tend to suffer tinnitus and hyperacusis – a condition that affects how people perceive sounds, causing them to be more sensitive to those that are not usually a problem for others.

Perrissin-Fabert says: “It’s interesting in terms of the Noise at Work Regulations, in which the exposure limits set – the lower and upper action values – are very much geared towards protecting against long-term, noise-induced hearing loss and acoustic trauma. We know that the mechanism of injury and the onset of hearing damage, such as acoustic shock, tinnitus or hyperacusis, are not directly related to those exposure limits, which add difficulties when checking the efficiency of our control measures.”

In terms of audiometry, the organisation is looking into using otoacoustic emissions as well as the standard pure-tone tests used by the NHS. Pure tone relies on patient responses to stimuli, so it is used only on adults and children old enough to co-operate with the test procedure. Otoacoustic emissions are used to test the hearing of new-born babies, and are being developed to provide audiologists with an additional way of screening the hearing of all adults – not just musicians. 

“We are interested in trying it at the Royal Opera House to make our audiometry even more comprehensive,” says Perrissin-Fabert. “It is a passive test, not reliant on a considered human response, is quick to carry out, and doesn’t require a soundproof environment. The major advantage, however, is that it is proactive. It can detect hearing damage before the person can actually notice it, whereas pure tone only measures the damage once it has happened and the person is already aware of it. So this test allows better hearing protection management. We believe it would be a useful motivational tool for encouraging players in our industry to wear hearing protection.”

Aside from hearing and noise-related issues, the control of substances hazardous to health (COSHH) is a key focus area for Perrissin-Fabert and her team  (see box, below). 

 

Improved COSHH credentials

Many chemicals are used at the Royal Opera House: in prop-making and dyeing, in oils and gases for engineering and welding tasks, in the paint shop, and for prosthesis manufacture (where latex is used). 

In this area, too, the organisation has sought help from outside to improve and inform its health and safety procedures.

Within the framework of IOSH’s PIPER initiative – Partnership for Innovative Practitioner Engagement in Research – two students undertaking master’s degrees (a medical doctor who wanted to obtain further qualifications in occupational health, and an insurance risk manager) helped health and safety manager Dominique Perrissin-Fabert and her team to widen their knowledge of the control of substances hazardous to health (COSHH). 

The students also helped to change attitudes, she says. “For example, the art of dyeing hasn’t changed in 40 years [at the opera house]. By the students questioning why the dye team did things the way they did, they got the team to do things differently and more safely.”

 

Evacuation drills

Another major consideration for the organisation, in terms of health and safety management, is the public. The Royal Opera House has two auditoriums, numerous bars and cafés, and, on performance days, can have up to 3,500 visitors and staff in the building. Unsurprisingly, it has carefully thought-out evacuation plans for all potential scenarios. 

“We do hold some planned evacuation drills for employees and the public every year,” Perrissin-Fabert says. “However, last season, we tested the evacuation in a ‘real’ scenario. No fire had broken out, but the alarms were triggered unexpectedly during a full house. On this occasion, the technical department was testing some pyrotechnics in a rehearsal room and, while the local fire heads had been isolated to avoid a false alarm, unexpectedly the thick smoke travelled three floors up and triggered two heads. As a result, the whole building had to be evacuated. Luckily, the audience took it quite well, and all our front-of-house staff are trained to handle such an evacuation.”

She points out that it is easier to manage an evacuation for an opera than for a ballet. “Ballet dancers need to keep warm to perform so, to restart a ballet performance after an evacuation, we need to allow at least 20 minutes for the dancers to

warm up again. It’s even worse in the winter. As part of our evacuation procedure, therefore, we have special blankets to keep artistes warm.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the perceived elite nature of opera and ballet, violence and aggression are as much an issue for the Royal Opera House as they are for other entertainment venues. Consequently, it worked with SOLT – the Society of London Theatre – on the introduction of a body-camera system, whereby security and some front-of-house staff wear the devices. 

Perrissin-Fabert explains: “They are quick to deploy by staff, and help to defuse tense situations. Basically, they act like a mirror, with the aggressor able to see themselves on the screen. That’s often enough to make them stop their behaviour.”

But most of the drama at the Royal Opera House takes place on the stage, to the delight of more than 2,000 audience members a night at this iconic London venue. Thanks to the efforts of Perrissin-Fabert and her team to ensure harmony between creativity and health and safety, and the organisation’s careful choreography of staff and spectator wellbeing, the audience can be sure of an amazing performance.

Now that really is something to make a song and dance about. 

 

Photography: Sim Canetty-Clarke

 

Tina Weadick is a freelance journalist, editor and translator based in Dublin. She worked on SHP - the forerunner of IOSH Magazine - for 13 years, the last seven as editor. She is a regular contributor to the health and safety media in both the UK and Ireland, and translates from French and German into English for various clients all over Europe.

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