Acoustic shock – what is it?

Posted by Alan 27/01/2021 0 Comment(s)


Acoustic shock – what is it?

Acoustic shock is the term we use for the impact of unexpected loud noises close to the ear, which can result in hearing loss if the person is exposed to such noises regularly.  Telephone headset wearers in call centers are at a high level of risk of acoustic shock, thanks to the inability to control the volume on the other end of the line.  While call center agents can control the volume of their headset, they may need to frequently adjust this for each caller as some people speak quietly and others tend to boom their words out as if they were auditioning for Broadway.  When an agent goes from a quiet call, with the volume turned up, to a loud call, the resulting effect is acoustic shock.

Physiologically speaking, acoustic shock is a sudden contraction of muscles in the inner ear after exposure to a loud noise.  These sudden muscle movements lead to stretching and even tearing of the eardrum and therefore, affect the person's hearing in the long term.  Sounds on the extreme ends of the sonic spectrum are worse than mid-level tones, and high pitched tones are a bigger cause of acoustic shock than low, bass tones.  Acoustic shock can cause nausea, anxiety, headaches, and in severe cases can cause PTSD and hearing loss.  People with mental health or sensory sensitivity issues are more at risk of acoustic shock causing persistent problems than the general population, and should be more cautions when using telephone headsets or going to places where loud and sudden noises are commonplace.

Musicians are often at risk of acoustic shock and although many wear earplugs to dampen the noise it can still occur; it seems that certain pieces of music are more likely to trigger it than others.  A musician in the UK has successfully sued the Royal Opera House orchestra for hearing loss caused by acoustic shock sustained during a practice of Wagner's Die Walkure in 2012.  Chris Goldscheider, a violinist, was wearing specialist earplugs during the session but claimed that the decibel level in the orchestra pit was well above what it should have been.  Venues typically use acoustic shields and clever acoustic engineering to shield the audience from the loudest sounds and to make the music sound as clear as possible, without exposing anyone to high noise levels.  Goldscheider claims this was not effective in the orchestra pit, but his case has been doubted by some other musicians, who claim that some hearing loss is inevitable among people in the music industry.

Whether Goldscheider had a concrete case or not was a matter for the courts (and they have ruled in his favor), but it is an interesting ruling that call center operators should be paying attention to, as the precedent has now been set.  There have been other employment related lawsuits brought over acoustic shock claims and hearing problems, but until now the majority of these have been settled out of court, suggesting that industries where exposure to noise is the standard have been ignoring the issue, almost literally sticking their fingers in their ears to block it out!

Look out for our next article, which will reveal all about how to prevent acoustic shock!


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