Hazardous noise is a serious workplace problem. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that about 30 million workers are exposed to dangerous levels of noise each year in their working environment. In fact, one of the most common occupational injuries in the U.S. is noise-related hearing loss. This danger continues to plague the workplace, with thousands of workers facing life with permanent hearing loss that was completely preventable.
The statistics are staggering. Since 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a federal agency, reports that almost 125,000 workers have suffered permanent hearing loss as a result of exposure to hazardous noise in the workplace. In just one recent year, there were more than 21,000 cases of significant hearing loss that could have been avoided.
How Hearing Loss Occurs
Hearing loss occurs when workers are exposed to high levels of noise, whether suddenly or on an ongoing basis. Sadly, this type of hearing loss cannot be corrected medically – neither surgery nor hearing aids are effective if hearing has been significantly damaged by hazardous noise. In some cases, the hearing loss is temporary. After leaving work, you may notice a reduced ability to hear, which returns after a few minutes or several hours. Unfortunately, constant exposure will eventually lead to permanent tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or permanent, significant hearing loss. The temporary hearing loss is merely the first stage of permanent damage.
The Science Behind Hearing Loss: Your Ears are a Delicate System
According to the Mayo Clinic, you hear sound when sound waves reach the structures inside of your ear. These vibrations, once reaching the structures, are converted into nerve signals – and we recognize these signals as sound. The sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate. The eardrum and three other parts of the ear structure called the hammer, anvil and stirrup, receive the waves, at which point they pass through another structure called the cochlea, in the inner ear.
There are thousands of tiny hairs attached to the nerve cells in the cochlea that work to translate the vibrations into the electrical signals sent to the brain, and heard as sound. With prolonged exposure to loud noise, these tiny hairs get damaged and die off, and the vibrations can no longer be correctly transmitted, resulting in permanent hearing loss. Often the higher pitched sounds will first become harder to hear.
Loud noise blasts that occur in the workplace can rupture the ear drum, causing permanent damage as well. The ear structure is only capable of withstanding certain decibel levels. In fact, the law restricts the level of sound that a worker can be exposed to without hearing protection.
The Signs of Work-Related Hearing Loss
The signs of a worker’s exposure to dangerous, potentially permanently damaging noise levels include the following symptoms:
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Buzzing sound in ears
- Roaring sound in head or ears
- Difficulty hearing the words of a person close to you at normal volume
- Indistinct sounds at higher ranges
Workers can experience these symptoms after leaving the place of employment, and as the hours pass, the effect reduces and regular hearing appears to be restored. In fact, if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may be in the early stages of permanent hearing loss.
N.C. Criteria for Permanent Hearing Loss and Benefits Available
Accident: If an employee suffers permanent hearing loss as a result of an injury by accident, the employee will receive 66-2/3% of his average weekly wage for 70 weeks if that loss is total loss of hearing in one ear. If the employee suffers complete loss of hearing in both ears, he will receive 150 weeks.
Occupational Disease hearing loss: In this situation where loss of hearing occurred over a period of time after being exposed to harmful noise (as opposed to being caused by an accident), the injured employee will be entitled to up to 150 weeks of compensation determined by his average weekly wage. However, the employee must have been last exposed to harmful noise during a period of at least 90 working days and suffered permanent loss of hearing in both ears as a result of prolonged exposure to harmful noise. If there is partial loss of hearing in both ears, then he will be entitled to a proportionate number of weeks that the partial loss bears to 150 weeks. No claim for occupational hearing loss can be filed until six months have passed since the last date of exposure to the harmful noise at work.
The requirements that must be met for determination of compensability for hearing loss are very complicated and difficult to understand.
At Riddle & Brantley, we are prepared to help you determine if you are entitled to compensation for loss of hearing as a result of an accident at work or exposure to harmful noise. These cases can be frustrating and results can be unfair at times when employees suffer hearing loss but don’t meet the specific requirements for compensation under NC law.
OSHA Regulations: Employers Required to Protect the Hearing of Workers
OSHA requires employers to protect the hearing of workers. They are required to monitor sound levels in the work environment. Sounds that are louder than 85 decibels are considered to be dangerous. There are legal limits to the sound level to which an employee can be exposed. The time limits are based upon the worker’s time weighted average over an eight-hour workday. When the noise level in the place of work increases by five decibels, the length of time to which an employee can be exposed is reduced by half.
Employees who are exposed to dangerous levels of noise in the workplace are required to be outfitted with hearing protection. Employees are also required to get training on safety procedures related hearing protection in jobs that involve high levels of sound, as well as the proper use and care of hearing protection.
How Riddle & Brantley Can Help
If you have been exposed to dangerous levels of work-related noise and are experiencing symptoms of hearing loss, get help from our experienced Raleigh workers compensation lawyers.
At Riddle & Brantley, we take our job very seriously. If your employer failed to protect you and you have suffered permanent hearing loss, we are here to help you get compensation. Job-related hearing loss is prevalent in the U.S., and many employees in factories and other noisy environments are not being protected as is required under law.
Whether you suffered hearing loss due to long term exposure, or had your eardrums damaged by a sudden blast or explosion, we understand the challenges you are facing. Our job is to assist you to recover the maximum possible in benefits.
With two Board Certified Specialists in workers’ compensation law on our team of lawyers, you can be confident that your case is in good hands. There may be options to recover more compensation than you are eligible to receive in workers’ comp benefits, based upon the facts, and how the hearing loss occurred. Each case must be reviewed individually.
To make it easier for you, we offer a free case evaluation so you can get information about where you stand. We do everything possible to pursue full justice for workers with hearing loss in North Carolina. Call now.