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Acoustic shock in the workplace

Updated: Feb 16

Do you have staff whose daily routine involves prolonged use of telephone headsets? You might not have considered that there are health and safety issues to be taken into consideration when designing the job and assessing the risks involved. However, there are -and one of the hazards is acoustic shock.

What is acoustic shock?

It’s the condition that can arise after being exposed to short duration, high frequency, high intensity sounds through a telephone headset. Employees who wear headsets for their work, such as workers at call centres, are particularly at risk as they’re often exposed to such sounds during their workday. Even just listening to callers with the volume set to a high level can increase the risk of acoustic shock.

What causes it?

Acoustic shock can be caused by high-pitched tones (HPT) that arise from:

  • feedback oscillation,

  • fax tones or

  • signalling tones.

What are the symptoms?

These incidents may be associated with a range of physiological and psychological symptoms that have been reported amongst headset wearers, including:

  • Headache

  • Tinnitus

  • Ear pain

  • Nausea

  • Jaw and neck pain

  • Poor balance

  • Anxiety

  • Hypersensitivity

  • Fatigue

Permanent tinnitus and/or hearing loss can result from prolonged exposure to acoustic shock.

How costly could a claim be?

If employees’ hearing is damaged, their employer could be facing claims for compensation, depending on individual circumstances and income.

By way of illustration, a recent (March 2018) legal case, Goldscheider v The Royal Opera House delivered a ruling from the High Court that a compensation claim for acoustic shock should be allowed.

There had previously been out-of-court settlements in the telecoms sector for damage caused to hearing, but this is the first time that the issue has been decided in court.

Goldscheider, a viola player claimed that his hearing had been damaged by exposure to noise levels of up to 137 decibels from the orchestra’s horn section. The lost earnings element of his claim on its own was £750,000.

The court found that the Royal Opera House had breached the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 in a number of ways including failing to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment, failing to take reasonably practicable measures to reduce the risk of noise at the rehearsal, and failing to properly inform and instruct musicians about the imperative nature of the need to wear hearing protection in what should have been a designated area.The judge was satisfied that the noise levels fell within the range identified as causing acoustic shock.

The Royal Opera House has appealed to the Court of Appeal. Their QC said that ear protection had been provided and the opera house had gone “as far and, if anything, further than the reasonable employer” to make reductions in noise levels.

How big is the problem?

According to the HSE, there are around 20,000 workers with work-related hearing problems and industrial hearing loss remains the occupational disease with the highest number of civil claims, accounting for about 75% of all occupational disease claims.


Exposure to Wagner at full volume is an unlikely hazard for telephone headset users. Nevertheless, hearing loss must be taken seriously by both employee and employer. Like asbestos, hearing damage is usually a gradual process over a period of time. The way to combat hearing loss is to take effective action at source to limit or avoid exposure.

The employer should look at the latest technically advanced headsets from different suppliers. These may incorporate noise-limiting devices that stop dangerous volume levels and frequencies being transmitted to the earpieces.

When we are enjoying music at a concert, we don’t think about the levels of noise to which musicians are regularly exposed. This case is a salutary reminder of the risks that can be faced and very important in highlighting this sometimes overlooked issue.

What should employers do?

All employers should regularly undertake and review noise risk assessments and the measures they have in place to protect their workers' hearing, including measures to prevent acoustic shock where necessary.

  • Have a process in place to check the equipment on a regular basis and record the findings. If there are any signs of deterioration in the headsets, they should be withdrawn from use and repaired or replaced.

  • Instruct employees to report defects as soon as they are aware. Don’t wait until they are checked by the company or the headset fails.

  • The employer should work with the employees and ask them to try a selection of potential headsets to find out which are most suitable for them. If the employee is in an individual office, could they put the call on speaker instead of using the handset?

Health surveillance should be carried out for hearing damage. This usually means:

  • Carry out regular hearing checks in a controlled environment.

  • Inform your employees about the results of their hearing tests.

  • Keep health records.

  • Where hearing damage is identified, ensure employees are examined by a doctor.


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