Employers cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to staff hearing problems

 

The Army today, your business tomorrow? If you're not aware of the vulnerability of your business to claims for hearing loss read on.

Business people employing telephonists, bouncers, bar staff, caterers, motorcycle couriers - to name but a few - are as exposed to litigation as the Department of Defence or those in the construction, engineering, manufacturing or agricultural sectors.

A senior employers' liability underwriter in Dublin and one of the insurance industry's major players has warned of a "frightening report" that's being prepared on employment and hearing loss.

The authoritative study on environmentally induced hearing loss is being carried out under the auspices of the UCD Graduate School of Business.

Already in its third year, it's expected to be published within the next 12 months.

Not only should it confirm the extent to which young people entering the workforce have damaged hearing. It should bring to the fore the stark dilemma facing employers.

By employing someone with a "hearing influence" - a noise-related hearing difficulty short of a hearing handicap - an employer could later be found negligent for taking someone on with a predisposition to hearing loss. Or if and when the employee's hearing further deteriorates it could be argued the employment contributed to it.

This, against the backdrop of an increasing horde of young people who come to the world of work with an unprecedented level of hearing loss - most probably caused by discos and noisy walkmans - is very worrying indeed.

Already, says the underwriter, "more and more claims are beginning to come through". The insurance industry itself is only waking up to the problem and "some haven't woken up at all".

He warns that businesses face "enormous potential costs". Where businesses have failed to take corrective action in accordance with Irish noise regulations insurers have refused to continue with their insurance.

When employees discover their hearing has been damaged, he says: "they don't go to the local shop to buy a hearing aid - they go to their solicitor."

After the claims start coming in, that business can become "uninsurable". Or where insurance is continued, businesses will be obliged to pay "multiples" of what they paid before. Or an insurance company could refuse to insure for noise.

Employers' liability insurance is based on the date damage occurred to an employee rather than when the claim is made. The insurance company that insured the business at the time picks up the tab. Mr John Cass, a professional audiologist in Dublin, says if noise levels "at the ear" are too great "pay the man when you make him deaf".

He says the escalating number of successful cases taken by soldiers is frightening for business because in many cases the plaintiffs suffered a hearing influence with no social handicap but nonetheless got compensation.

He says businesses won't be able to employ or have on their books people who could take an action against them. The employment of new personnel can be just too risky if they have a hearing influence. But he stresses his personal conviction that hearing is not an impairment to employment.

What can employers do? If you have to shout to talk in the workplace, it's too loud. All employers are obliged to assess, measure and control noise and, if necessary, provide ear protection and train employees in how to use it. They must inform employees about risk to their hearing and of all steps taken to reduce the risk.

Employees are obliged to wear hearing protectors in areas where noise is over 90 decibels - which it would certainly be in many nightclubs, pubs or even at some weddings.

Where workers are exposed to noise of 85 decibels or more they're entitled to have a professional hearing test paid for by the employer.

Where workers are exposed to noise greater than 85 decibels, measurements must be taken, recorded and repeated regularly. Measurements must be available for inspection by employees, their representatives or the Health and Safety Authority.

Even if compliance with these obligations provokes claims, employers are nonetheless obliged to follow them.