In short, occupational hearing loss is a workplace injury involving hearing loss that occurs directly from an individual’s employment. A workplace injury is a personal injury that occurs during a person’s employment and is caused by the type of task that they are required to do at their job. However, the term workplace injury can apply to both injuries that occur during work hours and injuries that occur while on the employment premises.
Some employers may provide compensation for employees’ injuries that are not associated with their job description. However, most workplace injury claims focus on injuries that are directly associated with their job description. Examples of common workplace injuries include, but are not limited to:
- Repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tennis elbow, which are further discussed below;
- Respiratory illnesses, such as those resulting from inhaling toxic substances;
- Various industrial diseases, such as popcorn lung;
- Occupational injuries, including occupational deafness;
- Injuries resulting from being in a confined space for extended amounts of time;
- Slip and fall injuries.
Under specific circumstances, workers’ compensation may also be available for off-site injuries that are sustained outside of the workplace. For example, injuries resulting from a car accident that occurred during working hours may be covered by workers’ compensation if the injury occurred while the employee was performing work-related tasks.
However, whether or not workers’ compensation is available will largely depend on the nature of the employment contract between the worker and employer, as well as individual state laws. Generally speaking, if an injury occurs while the worker is on the clock or is under the direction of their employer, it could be possible to hold the employer liable for those injuries.
Occupational hearing loss is an injury that is often covered by workers’ compensation. There are more than 20,000 cases of loss of hearing due to employees’ workplace conditions are reported each year. In fact, occupational hearing loss cases make up almost 15% of reported occupational illnesses every year.
How Does Industrial Deafness Occur?
Once again, occupational deafness, also known as industrial deafness, is a type of hearing loss caused by equipment noise exceeding a specific decibel level. Extremely loud noise that exceeds a certain decibel level can cause permanent damage to the worker’s ears. Generally speaking, the damage that occurs in industrial deafness cases is sustained in the inner ear.
Although industrial deafness may occur in a variety of different ways, workplace injury commonly happens in one of two ways. The first way in which industrial deafness may occur is by working around loud equipment for a prolonged period of time. An individual’s prolonged exposure to industrial noises that exceed a certain decibel level may cause one to go deaf.
The second way in which industrial deafness occurs is called acoustic shock. Acoustic shock may occur when an individual suddenly hears a loud noise over a specific decibel level that results in an ear injury to their inner ear. The sudden loud noise can result in an immediate and permanent hearing loss.
What Decibel Level Can Cause Occupational Deafness?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH”) has established a recommended exposure limit (“REL”) of 85 decibels averaged over an eight-hour workday for the safety of industrial workers.
This is because workers who are exposed to noise levels at or above the recommended exposure limit are at risk of developing significant hearing loss over their working lifetime. Although the recommended exposure limit is based on exposure for eight hours, every individual differs in their susceptibility to noise.
Importantly, there are tools available for measuring the decibel level of noise in an environment. In fact, NIOSH has developed a “NIOSH Sound Level Meter app” that helps workers measure sound levels with their mobile devices.
Examples of equipment that can produce noise levels around 85-90 dBA include, but are not limited to:
- Printing and other machine presses;
- Industrial lawn equipment, such as mowers;
- Industrial vacuums;
- Common power tools, such as saws or drills.
As noises reach 95 decibels or more, a worker is more likely to have an increased risk for occupational deafness. Examples of equipment that can produce noise levels above 95 decibels include, but are not limited to:
- Construction vehicles, such as bulldozers or drilling equipment;
- Ambulance sirens;
- Chain saws or other louder mechanical equipment;
- Bars, restaurants, or nightclubs that utilize sound equipment;
- Large sporting events.
It is important to note that occupational deafness is completely preventable. Employers and workers can both take actions to prevent hazardous noise exposure in the workplace, such as by utilizing personal protective equipment (“PPE”).
PPE recommended to avoid occupational deafness is hearing protection devices. Once again, either the employee or the employer can provide the correct PPE to prevent occupational deafness. However, it is ultimately the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe work environment by providing their employees with the correct PPE.
In fact, there are employment regulations and laws that have been developed to ensure that employees are provided with proper PPE in environments where workplace injuries may occur from their exposure to environmental dangers. These laws include jobs in which an employee is exposed to a higher decibel level of noise.
What Jobs Have a High Risk of Industrial Deafness?
As can be seen from the list of activities above that may result in higher average decibels occurring, the following is a list of jobs that have a high risk of industrial deafness occurring:
- Musicians, DJs, or workers who work in a nightclub or bar setting that employ sound equipment;
- Farmers or agricultural workers who work near heavy machinery;
- Construction workers that utilize certain power tools that have a higher decibel output;
- Airline ground maintenance crew or other crew that are near or constantly exposed to vehicle noise, such as automotive repair technicians; and/or
- Any other employee who works with loud machinery, especially in factories where the sounds can be amplified.
What Can I Do if My Hearing Has Been Affected at Work?
If you have suffered hearing loss at work, then you should first contact your company’s human resources department. In order to pursue a workplace injury claim, a person must first typically exhaust all of their administrative remedies. This means that an employee must communicate with their workplace and try to resolve their issue through their internal methods before pursuing anything else.
Then, if exhausting all administrative remedies does not solve the employee’s issue, such as their employer not being subscribed to workers’ compensation, then they can initiate a private civil lawsuit against their employer for their damages.
In a private civil lawsuit, the employee will claim that they suffered a hearing injury and make a claim for damages from their employer. Once again, typically, injuries related to occupational deafness are covered by workers’ compensation.
Is Occupational Hearing Loss Covered by Workers’ Compensation?
In many cases, occupational deafness will be covered by workers’ compensation. Additionally, the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) has established guidelines for workplace ergonomics and provides assistance to businesses that proactively address work-related ergonomics. OSHA also issues citations when these federal regulations are not enforced.
Can My Employer Be Held Responsible for My Hearing Loss?
Once again, by bringing your concerns to the attention of your co-workers, union, or employer, you could receive improved work conditions related to hearing loss issues. However, if the situation remains unchanged, you should consider speaking with an attorney who is familiar with employment regulations and laws.
This is because minor occupational hearing loss can develop into permanent occupational deafness. Additionally, you should consult a medical professional in order to discuss the extent of your hearing problem, as well as the recovery process. It is imperative to note that your personal safety and health should not be compromised by your employment.
What Damages Are Available if I Win a Workers’ Compensation Claim?
Once again, workers’ compensation is a state-mandated insurance program that provides compensation to employees who suffer job-related injuries, including occupational deafness.
An employee who is injured while on the job is guaranteed benefits, regardless of who was at fault for the injury. In return for an employer subscribing to workers’ compensation, employees are generally forced to forfeit the right to sue their employer in court for damages for their workplace injuries.
Workers’ compensation benefits generally include:
- Replacement income for an individual to provide them money that they would have otherwise been able to make in their respective position;
- Damages related to an individual’s medical expenses;
- Rehabilitation, if possible;
- Long-term or lump sum pension if an individual is permanently unable to work due to their hearing injury; and/or
- Temporary disability pension while an individual is unable to work or is seeking other employment.
Should I Talk to a Lawyer About Occupational Deafness?
You may be experiencing a job-related occupational deafness injury or some other type of workplace injury. If so, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer.
An experienced workers’ compensation attorney can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific workers’ compensation laws. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court as needed.