Hearing loss is often a natural phenomenon as people age. About a third of seniors over the age of 65 and half of seniors over 75 have some degree or hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss usually comes on gradually and tends to run in the family.
When younger and middle-aged people experience hearing loss, the cause is often related to the workplace. Constant exposure to loud noises can damage cells and membranes in the inner ear. Employers should equip employees with hearing protection if they are expected to work in a loud environment, but some employers believe the workplace isn’t loud enough to damage hearing.
A workplace that is not unusually loud may cause hearing loss when noise combines with ototoxicity. Employees who suffer hearing loss because of a work environment may claim benefits under state and federal workers’ compensation laws.
What Is Ototoxicity?
Ototoxicity is a medical term for ear poisoning. Certain chemicals are known to damage hearing or to increase the likelihood that loud noises will damage hearing. Those chemicals are called ototoxicants.
Ototoxicants an employee may encounter in the workplace include:
- Carbon monoxide
- Hydrogen cyanide
- Butyl Nitrite
Many other chemicals can also lead to hearing loss. Scientists are still studying the chemical exposures associated with ototoxicity.
What Jobs Expose Employees to Ototoxicants?
Manufacturing, mining, utilities, construction, and agriculture are the industries that place employees at the greatest risk of exposure to ototoxicants. Manufacturers that often use ototoxicants include:
- Machine shops
- Leather manufacturers
- Textile and apparel plants
- Petroleum companies
- Paper mills
- Chemical plants
- Paint manufacturers
- Automotive plants
- Plastics manufacturers
- Furniture manufacturers
- Ship builders and breakers
- Electronics manufacturers
- Solar cell manufacturers
Occupations that put workers at the highest risk of ototoxicity are those that combine exposure to chemicals with noisy work environments. Those occupations include:
- Manufacturing in the industries listed above
- Fueling vehicles and aircrafts
- Pesticide spraying
Other work, including insecticide application, might also create a risk of ototoxicity.
What Damage Is Caused by Ototoxicity?
Particularly in combination with a loud working environment, ototoxicants damage sensory cells. Those cells are hairs that sit in the cochlea, a hollow, fluid-filled bone in the inner ear. People are usually born without about 16,000 sensory cells within each cochlea. The cells perceive sound waves as vibrations and translate them into sounds.
Sensory cells in the cochlea are important to hearing and balance. Damage may cause hearing loss, dizziness, and balance problems.
Hearing impairment may take several forms. Ototoxicity might make it more difficult to tell two sounds apart when they share the same frequency. Ototoxicity might distort sound or make it more difficult to identify the source of a sound. And ototoxicity can make it more difficult to hear soft sounds, making it necessary for a worker to ask others to speak up before the worker can understand what they are saying.
Can I Make a Workers’ Comp Claim for Ototoxicity?
Any injury that requires medical treatment can be the basis for a workers’ compensation claim if the injury is work-related. Treatment for hearing loss usually involves a diagnosis and the prescription of hearing aids or other assistive devices.
Workers’ compensation insurance companies often resist paying claims for ototoxicity. They argue that hearing loss is a natural phenomenon and claim the employee cannot prove that the loss is related to employment. A skilled workers’ compensation attorney can investigate the claim and, if it has merit, can present evidence to establish that the work environment probably caused the worker’s hearing impairment.
Hearing loss is usually diagnosed by an audiologist or an otolaryngologist. The doctor, or a technician working under the doctor’s supervision, administers a hearing test. A machine plays tones at different volumes and frequencies. The patient indicates when he or she hears a tone. The resulting audiogram is a graph that illustrates the frequencies and volumes that the patient can hear.
The doctor uses the audiogram to diagnose the extent of a hearing impairment. For workers’ compensation purposes, hearing loss is measured according to standards published by the American Medical Association for the evaluation of disabilities.
Hearing loss lawyers prove that hearing loss is work related in a couple of ways. The first is evidence that the employee’s hearing was fine before the employee worked significant hours in the work environment that allegedly caused the hearing loss. While it is useful if the employee had an audiogram before employment began, most people do not have their hearing tested until they suspect they are suffering from hearing loss. If the employee had a medical exam before employment began, the doctor might also be able to testify that no audiogram was ordered because the worker showed no sign of a hearing impairment.
The next best evidence is testimony from people who knew the employee before his or her job assignment began. Those people can testify that the worker showed no symptoms of hearing impairment.
The second factor is the nature of the work environment. If the employee was likely exposed to ototoxicants at work, and if the work environment is noisy, it is fair to infer that work caused the hearing impairment. That inference is strengthened by evidence that the worker is too young to make age-related hearing loss a likely explanation, and by evidence that his or her hearing began to deteriorate only after exposure to chemicals that can cause hearing loss.
What Benefits Are Available for Hearing Loss?
In addition to medical treatment (including prescriptions for hearing aids), a permanent partial disability benefit is generally available for hearing loss. The extent of that benefit is tied to the degree of hearing impairment. The benefit also depends on whether the employee is subject to state or federal workers’ compensation protection.
Since ototoxicity causes a gradual hearing loss, employees do not always realize immediately that they are suffering from an impairment. The employer should be notified of the hearing loss as soon as the employee makes a connection between hearing loss and employment. If an employee’s job creates a risk of ototoxicity and the employee receives an audiogram showing hearing loss, the employee should seek immediate advice from a workers’ compensation attorney.