The Health and Safety Executive estimates that there are 21,000 employees with work-related hearing problems. It seems that employers have a way to go to protect the health of workers in noisy environments.
What can your employer do with respect to ear safety at work?
Your employer must make sure you can work in a safe environment. If average noise levels go above a certain limit (80 decibels, e.g. power tools), your employer has to take action. Your company may provide you with ear protection, and limit the time you are exposed. By law, average noise levels at your workplace must never be higher than 87 decibels.
Your employer should provide you with suitable ear protection if average noise levels exceed the legal limits. Even if noise levels are not higher than the legal limit, your company should still give you ear protection if you ask for it.
Your employer must carry out regular safety checks. They should also make sure that all staff understand the noise risks and follow the correct procedures.
If noise levels are so high that there is a risk to your long-term hearing, your employer also needs to carry out regular hearing checks. An audiologist can provide this service if the company doesn’t have suitable in-house occupational health services.
If you are concerned about noise levels, you should speak to your employer or HR department. It is your ear health in line here so, you should be proactive in trying to nip the problem in the bud rather than waiting until it is too late.
Ear protection -Personal protective equipment (PPE)
Your employer’s legal duty to ensure safe noise levels is set out in the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005.
The safety checks your employer must carry out will depend on how serious the risk of hearing damage is. For example, noise levels on a factory floor will need to be checked more often than in an office.
Legally speaking, the cause of the loud noise does not matter. A loud call centre or classroom may pose more of a risk than loud machinery.
The company must provide you with the right personal protective equipment (PPE) for the job. The right ear protection will depend on the situation:
- If you are working with or around power tools, earmuffs are better at reducing high-frequency sounds.
- If you drive a tractor or plant machinery, earplugs are better at reducing low-frequency sounds.
- If you work in a call-centre, a white noise machine will be more practical than on-ear or in-ear protection.
If you wear glasses, or cannot wear or use whatever protection your company provides as standard, your employer has a duty to consider your individual needs.
The needs of any worker who has already suffered some degree of hearing loss must also be given special consideration by their employer.
The charity Action on Hearing Loss stresses that earplugs bought on the high street are designed for air travel, sleep or swimming; these earplugs are not likely to provide adequate protection in a noisy work environment.
Early signs of hearing issues
Hearing issues in the workplace are caused one of two ways:
- Over time, by regular exposure to sources like pneumatic drills or tractor engines, or while working in loud environments like bars, classrooms or call centres.
- Instantly, if exposed to a sudden, very loud noise, such as a gunshot or loudspeaker feedback. A hearing loss injury caused by a single event is called ‘acoustic shock’.
Just like all the other sesnes, hearing is one of the senses that changes during the course of normal ageing. This makes spotting work-related hearing loss more difficult. If you are retired, you may not immediately connect your hearing loss with having worked in a loud environment.
Acoustic shock syndrome is easier to identify, as your hearing loss will usually occur immediately after the noise incident, and may also be accompanied by other symptoms, like pain and tinnitus. If you experience sudden hearing loss you should seek medical advice immediately.
Hearing loss can occur at any age. Early signs of hearing loss include hearing muffled speech and having trouble hearing speech or other sounds in a loud environment.
If you are experiencing hearing loss, you should see an audiologist, doctor or other health professional as soon as possible. It is particularly important to act quickly to reduce the risk of further damage, and to mitigate the effects of ongoing hearing loss.
What are employee’s rights?
If you employer has failed to identify risks and put in place suitable safety measures, your employer would be considered liable for any damage to your hearing resulting from this negligence. If your hearing loss was caused by your job (causation), and your employer was negligent (liability), you can claim financial compensation from your employer. Your legal claim would need to be supported by any available evidence, such as a medical report from an audiologist.
Compensation awards for noise-induced hearing loss and acoustic shock are broken down into:
- General damages
- Special damages
General damages can be awarded for pain, suffering and loss of amenity resulting from your injury.
Special damages are awarded for any financial costs or losses you incur, such as:
- Loss of earnings (including future loss)
- Medical treatments (e.g. audiologists’ treatments)
- Cost of any device prescriptions (e.g hearing aids)
A compensation claim must be started by your solicitor within three years of the date of diagnosis, or the date that you could have reasonably been aware that your condition could have been caused by your job.
No amount of money can bring your hearing back. You should take all the possible individual precautions that are practical and possible, to safeguard your hearing at all times. If you think your hearing has been affected, you should seek audiology appointment in the first instance. A report from an audiologist will help establish the hearing injury and will help in taking further action about it.
Chris Salmon – Author Bio
Chris Salmon is a co-founder and Director of Quittance Legal Services. Chris has played key roles in the shaping and scaling of a number of legal services brands and is a regular commentator in the legal press.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Audiology Planet or its members. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the Audiology Planet concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers.
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- 2020. Employers’ responsibilities – legal duties. Health and Safety Executive. https://www.hse.gov.uk/noise/employers.htm Retrieved March 2020.
- 2020. General and Special Damages – Legal Duty of care. Quittance Legal Services. https://www.quittance.co.uk/personal-injury-compensation/accident-at-work-claims Retrieved March 2020.
- 2005. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2005/1643/contents/made Retrieved March 2020.
- 2020. Choosing the right hearing protection. Action on Hearing Loss. https://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/hearing-health/protect-your-hearing/choosing-the-right-hearing-protection/ Retrieved March 2020.