Is hearing loss covered by workers’ compensation?
One of the most common, yet underreported, occupational injuries is hearing loss. When a worker sustains hearing loss on the job, it can lead to a diminished quality of life and may also make it difficult for the employee to continue working.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 12 percent of the working population in the U.S. has hearing problems. Roughly a quarter (24 percent) of these cases are caused by occupational and work-related exposures.
What causes hearing loss in the workplace?
Occupational hearing loss occurs when an employee is exposed to ototoxic chemicals or loud noise. An ototoxic chemical can increase susceptibility to the damaging effects resulting from noise and can cause hearing loss on its own.
Around 10 million employees are exposed to ototoxicants each year, including solvents, asphyxiants, metals and compounds, pharmaceuticals and nitriles.
Noise is considered to have reached a dangerous level when it is 85 decibels or greater. As a general rule, if a worker must raise their voice to speak to someone who is within arm’s reach, the noise level is too high. The CDC reports that approximately 22 million employees are exposed to dangerously high noise levels annually.
Which industries are susceptible to occupational hearing loss?
Exposure to hazardous noise levels and ototoxicants is more common in some industries than in others. Amongst the most dangerous industries are mining, manufacturing and construction. Although hearing protection and safety requirements have been established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), not all employers adhere to those regulations.
When an employer fails to follow OSHA guidelines, workers are at higher risk for developing hearing loss. Unfortunately, in many cases, such hearing loss is irreversible.
Coping with deafness at work
When coping with deafness at work, it’s important to understand that every worker has different needs. It’s up to you to decide whether to disclose any hearing loss to your employer. If you opt to make a disclosure, you may be able to receive accommodations that can increase your productivity.
One possible accommodation is a work area adjustment. In requesting this accommodation, be prepared to explain how your current work area interferes with your productivity. You may also request and be able to receive assistive listening devices or systems, as well as hearing aid compatible telephones.
Other possibilities include emergency notification systems designed to alert hearing-impaired workers in the event of an emergency.
Obtaining workplace hearing loss compensation
Under North Carolina’s workers’ compensation laws, employees who experience hearing loss as a result of their employment may be able to recover compensation for medical costs and lost income. To be eligible to recover such benefits, the worker must be able to demonstrate that they were exposed to noise in the workplace that exceeded 90 decibels. Furthermore, that exposure must have lasted for a minimum of 90 working days.
Employees are only able to recover compensation if they experience a loss of hearing in both ears. The loss of hearing doesn’t need to be the same in both ears.
In the event the employee had some pre-existing hearing loss prior to beginning their job, the employer or their insurance company may try to only pay benefits for the difference between the partial hearing loss that existed prior to employment and the hearing loss that was sustained as a result of the employee’s exposure in the workplace.
Compensation is not typically paid if the hearing loss is only temporary. The hearing loss must be permanent in order for the employee to recover benefits.
What about if the injured employee has suffered hearing loss while working for multiple employers over a period of time? Who is responsible for paying compensation?
In this case, the employer who would be liable for workers’ compensation benefits would be the one in whose employment the injured worker was last exposed to the hazardous noise levels for a period of 90 working days.
Most employers aren’t able to avoid the responsibility of paying benefits for hearing loss, even if the employer required workers to use hearing protection such as earplugs. However, if it can be shown that the employer provided protection equipment but the employee refused to use that equipment, the employee may not be eligible for compensation.
The process of determining workers’ compensation benefits for occupational hearing loss in North Carolina is extremely complex. If you have questions about your rights regarding occupational hearing loss or how to file a workers’ compensation claim, contact our attorneys at the Wilder Pantazis Law Group. We have experience representing injured workers across many different industries and sectors. We can ensure your rights are protected and that you receive fair compensation for your injury.