Hearing loss in the workplace more than just industrial, says CWU


The Northern TUC Health and Safety Forum has been told that excessive workplace noise which could cause hearing loss affects many more workers than is usually assumed.

Noise induced hearing loss

The conference heard that more than 1 million people in the UK experience excessive noise levels while doing their jobs, with over 17,000 workers presently suffering from work-related, noise-induced hearing loss.

Steve Mann, health and safety policy officer for the Communications Workers' Union (CWU), said that excessive work-related noise can lead to permanent and disabling hearing damage.

"Once your hearing is destroyed you don't recover from it," Mr Mann said, adding that sufferers can develop tinnitus, a distressing condition which can lead to disturbed sleep and hypersensitivity to noise.

Mr Mann also cited call centres as places where workers could encounter 'acoustic shock' related to high-frequency telephone headset or handset noise.

Although the Control of Noise at Work Regulations do not specifically refer to acoustic shock, the CWU is seeking recognition of the condition as a serious industrial injury.

To this end, the union is working with its lawyers, Simpson Millar LLP, to gain compensation rights for members injured by acoustic shock.

To date, all CWU cases concerning acoustic shock have been settled out of court without a precedent judgement, with the first 120 resulting in total compensation of £279,881. It is believed the figure for the UK has since risen to £2m.

Mr Mann concluded by reminding the conference that, like all workplace hazards, noise-induced hearing loss is preventable. "It is our job as safety reps to speak to members and find out what the issues are; press for noise awareness training and noise reporting procedures; make sure that incidents are reported however small and continue to campaign for solutions."

Kate Virica of Simpson Millar talked about noise-induced hearing loss and how the law works when a claim is made, noting that claimants need to establish whether the hearing loss is bi-lateral (both ears) or asymmetrical (one sided), and what level the tinnitus is: mild, moderate, severe or catastrophic.

"In over 50% of NIHL cases the claimant also suffers from tinnitus which can leave sufferers feeling isolated as they may not want to go out in public, have difficulties engaging in conversation with friends and find it problematic to get to sleep which may lead to depression," Kate said.

She added that solicitors need to prove a case, using evidence such as medical reports, audiograms and witness statements. As well as proving that an employer knew, or should have known, that exposure to hazardous noise could cause an injury and that they have been negligent.

Kate also underlined the importance of making timely claims and ensuring that proceedings are issued within 3 years of developing significant symptoms and realising or when they ought to have realised that the injury was work related. "Do not wait until the problem is severe, speak to your doctor and make sure any hearing problems are investigated," she said. "Union reps are an invaluable source of information and can provide access to health and safety meeting minutes, noise surveys and warning notices."

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