Hearing Loss & Worker’s Compensation
Move over black lung disease and carpel tunnel syndrome: the most common work-related illness is occupational hearing loss.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work, and more than 9 million are exposed to ototoxic (literally, ear poisoning) chemicals, such as solvents and metals. In all, more than $242 million are spent annually on occupational hearing loss-related worker’s compensation claims.
While employees in many industries may be at risk or experience work-related hearing loss, compensation claims most often involve those employed in agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, utilities, and transportation. Approximately 45% of carpenters and plumbers report perceived hearing loss.
Hearing loss may go unnoticed until your ability to understand speech is affected.
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is preventable but once acquired, it is permanent and irreversible. Therefore, employers and employees should work together to imple-ment prevention measures. Removing hazardous noise from the workplace through engineering controls (e.g., installing a muffler or building an acoustic barrier) is the most effective way to prevent NIHL. Unfortunately, these measures are not always feasible. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as ear plugs and ear muffs, should be used when it is not possible to otherwise reduce noise to a safe level.
The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act includes a specific provision that covers work-related NIHL. Worker’s compen-sation insurance companies typically fight these cases due to the complexities and details that must be established by the employee.
Illinois law requires an employee to prove the noise levels to which he or she was exposed and establish that exposure occurred over a minimum amount of time. These minimum hours per day depend on the decibel level involved. Many large employers implement noise surveys from time to time to insure that they are complying with OSHA regulations. These surveys are important for establishing that hearing loss is related to work-related noise.
According to OSHA requirements, employers must implement hearing conservation programs for employees if the noise level of the workplace is equal to or above 85 decibals (dB) for an average eight-hour time period. According to the American Tinnitus Association, a noise at 85 dB is equivalent to average traffic; 80 dB, an alarm clock located 2 feet away. OSHA also states that “exposure to impulsive or impact noise should not exceed 140 dB peak sound pressure level.” For perspective, a sound at 105 decibals is the equivalent of a rock concert. Safe exposure at 91 db is only 2 hours, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH).
In Illinois, a worker’s comp claim for NIHL must involve a loss at the 1000 Hz, 2000 Hz, or 3000 Hz frequency ranges. Hearing loss outside these ranges is not considered in a worker’s compensation claim. Whether the hearing loss is within these ranges must be determined by audiometric studies. Audiograms test a range of sounds from low to high frequencies. NIOSH states that the test frequencies usually range from 500 Hz (around the middle of a piano keyboard) up to 6000 or 8000 Hz (a little above the highest note a piano can play). Many large employers engaged in noise-producing industry conduct yearly or biannual employee hearing tests. These progressive studies can be important in demonstrating that the constant decrease in an employee’s hearing is caused by the noise levels in the working environment. Other evidence that is considered in a hearing loss case is whether the employer provided hearing protection and what type of hearing protection was provided.
In addition to noise-induced hearing loss, workers may also experience hearing loss from exposure to certain chemicals, or ototoxic hearing loss. A common side effect of many medications, ototoxic hearing loss is also symptomatic of workers exposed to certain chemicals on the job. According to the Department of Commerce of Western Australia, more than 750 chemicals have been identified as causes of ototoxicity, but only a handful have been studied individually. In addition to medications, substances known to cause hearing loss are butanol, ethanol, ethyl benzene, solvent mixtures and fuels, styrene, arsenic, lead, manganese, mercury, and carbon monoxide. When exposure to these substances also include workplace noise exposure, the hearing loss can be even greater than the loss from only chemical exposure or only environmental noise, according to studies published by the National Institutes of Health.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the first sign of ototoxicity is ringing in the ears (tinnitus). Continued exposure may lead to hearing loss. Balance problems can also occur as a result of ototoxic medications. Sometimes these problems are temporary because the human body can learn to adapt to reduced balance control; sometimes, they are permanent.
Just like NIHL, the effects of ototoxic hearing loss can affect your quality of life. Not being able to hear conversations or feeling a little dizzy may cause you to stop participating in usual activities. The cost of hearing aids, doctor appointments, and tests quickly add up.
If you or a loved one has experienced hearing loss that may be work-related, contact Styka & Styka, LLC for a free, no-risk consultation to understand your options.