Workplace Hearing Loss & South Carolina Workers’ Compensation
Learn about your right to compensation for work-related hearing loss
Many industries in South Carolina expose employees to a combination of occupational hazards that can significantly impact their hearing. Two prominent factors contributing to hearing loss in the workplace are excessive noise and exposure to harmful chemicals.
Prolonged exposure to loud noise levels and certain chemicals can have detrimental effects on the delicate structures of the ear, leading to permanent hearing damage. Understanding the dangers associated with these occupational hazards is crucial for both employers and employees to implement preventive measures and protect the long-term hearing health of workers.
In this article, we’ll delve into the risks posed by noise and chemical exposure in the workplace, discuss hearing loss prevention measures, and explain how to file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits if you’ve been affected.
Statistics on work-related hearing loss
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous levels of noise each year, and another 10 million are exposed to solvents and other ototoxins at work. It’s perhaps not surprising then that about 1 in 8 U.S. workers report that they have trouble hearing. Among those people, about 25% experienced hearing loss as a direct result of hazards at work.
An overview of hearing loss
To understand how hearing loss occurs, you should first be familiar with the normal functions of the different parts of the ear. The ear is comprised of 3 parts:
- The outer ear
- The middle ear
- The inner ear
The outer ear is shaped to gather sound waves. At the end of the ear canal is the eardrum, which separates the middle ear from the outer ear.
Normally, sound waves pass through the ear canal and vibrate the eardrum. The middle ear contains 3 small bones that conduct the vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear.
The inner ear is where the vibrations are translated into electrical impulses that are sent to your brain.
Hearing loss is often a natural condition of aging. However, it can occur at all ages from exposure to harmful levels of noise and certain chemicals.
Hearing loss is defined as 1 of 3 types:
- Conductive loss involves the outer or middle ear.
- Sensorineural loss involves the inner ear.
- Mixed loss is a combination of the first two.
Hearing loss occurs when 1 or more parts of the ear do not function as they should.
Symptoms of hearing loss
The symptoms of hearing loss can be subtle at first and may include the following:
- Hearing muffled speech and other sounds
- Having difficulty discerning words
- Having trouble hearing consonants
- Needing others to speak louder or slower to understand speech
- Needing to turn up the TV volume to hear
- Hearing a constant ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
Tinnitus is a condition characterized by a high-pitched ringing sound that affects up to 1 in 4 adults. Usually, tinnitus is caused by a condition such as aging or ear trauma, but loud, prolonged noises are also a frequent cause.
Effects of high noise levels
In addition to hearing loss and tinnitus, constant high noise levels at work can have other negative consequences as well, including:
- High blood pressure
- Chronic fatigue
- Gastrointestinal problems
Which jobs are most likely to lead to hearing loss in workers?
Anyone who works in a loud environment without proper ear protection is susceptible to hearing loss over time. Among the most common workers to experience occupational hearing loss are:
- Construction workers
- Factory workers
- Airport ground staff
- Agricultural workers
- Military personnel
- Firefighters and other first responders
OSHA guidelines for noise protection at work
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishes standards for the safety and health of workers. Employers who do not meet those standards are subject to penalties.
OSHA Standard Number 1910.95 is designed to protect workers against noise exposure that exceeds 85 decibels for long periods of time. They also set standards for the protection of workers from hearing loss caused by exposure to ototoxic chemicals.
Employers are required to provide safe working conditions per the required OSHA standards. Concerning hearing loss in the workplace, OSHA requires employers to provide (at no cost) hearing protection for workers who are exposed to the following decibel and exposure levels:
- 90 decibels of noise exposure for 8 or more hours per day
- 92 decibels of noise exposure for 6 or more hours per day
- 95 decibels of noise exposure for 4 or more hours per day
- 97 decibels of noise exposure for 3 or more hours per day
- 100 decibels of noise exposure for 2 or more hours per day
- 102 decibels of noise exposure for 1.5 or more hours per day
- 105 decibels of noise exposure for 1 or more hours per day
- 110 decibels of noise exposure for 30 minutes per day
- 115 decibels of noise exposure for even 15 minutes or less per day
As a point of reference, the average vacuum or dishwasher in a person’s home produces about 70 decibels of sound while running, while a power lawn mower produces about 90 decibels (which is the minimum amount of noise protected under OSHA’s standards).
What chemicals can cause hearing loss at work?
In addition to noise, there are a number of chemicals that workers are exposed to that can cause hearing loss. Over time, these chemicals tend to make the ears more sensitive and may include:
- Metals like mercury or lead
- Asphyxiant gasses like carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide
- Nitriles like methyl cyanoacrylate, which is used in super glue and certain rubber
- Certain pharmaceutical drugs
Can I get workers’ comp benefits for hearing loss?
South Carolina has a no-fault workers’ comp insurance system, similar to other states. It covers workers who are injured on the job. It also covers occupational diseases like hearing loss.
In South Carolina, all employers with 4 or more employees must carry workers’ compensation insurance. An employer who fails to do so will be liable for substantial fines.
A key requirement for eligibility is that the workplace injury or condition must “arise out of and in the course of employment.” Some injuries, and occupational diseases in particular, are difficult to link to one traumatic event at work. This is true for hearing loss and tinnitus.
Explore the key factors affecting workers’ comp eligibility, including employee status, the nature of the injury or illness, and reporting and filing deadlines.
How do you prove hearing loss is work-related?
Hearing loss and tinnitus can develop over time, which means it’s not always easy to pinpoint when they started. Furthermore, hearing loss and tinnitus can be caused by many different factors occurring in everyday life. Hence, a claim for workers’ comp benefits for hearing loss can be a challenge.
Since proving a linkage between your hearing loss and your job can be difficult, you should consider doing the following to increase your chance of a successful claim:
- Keep a record of the first sign of a problem. In detail, make a note of the symptoms of hearing loss or tinnitus. Often, your family and friends will point them out.
- Document your experience with loud noises at work. In particular, make a note of any complaints from your fellow workers who might also be experiencing the symptoms.
- Have audiometric testing (a hearing test) done with a qualified physician who can provide you with an official diagnosis. This will be essential when filing a workers’ comp claim.
If you’re currently dealing with hearing loss that you believe was caused by your job, consider reaching out to a workers’ compensation attorney with experience in claims involving hearing loss and other occupational diseases who can help you gather further evidence to prove your claim.
Types of workers’ comp benefits
Workers’ compensation benefits include the following:
- Medical benefits. These include the cost of all reasonable medical care, appointments, supplies and rehabilitation treatments.
- Recovery of lost wages. Generally, the eligible worker will receive two-thirds of their average weekly wage for a period of time, depending on the type and extent of the disability.
- Death benefits. These are awarded to certain dependents if a worker dies from a work-related injury or illness.
How long do I have to file a claim for hearing loss in South Carolina?
In South Carolina, workers are required to notify their employer within 90 days of a work-related injury or illness or the discovery of a work-related injury or illness. This means that you likely only have 90 days after receiving a diagnosis of hearing loss to inform your employer, so it’s best not to delay.
After you notify your employer, it’s their responsibility to file a claim on your behalf with their workers’ compensation carrier. Don’t get discouraged if your claim is initially denied, but do respond quickly. Your best course of action at that point would be to contact an experienced work injury attorney to help you with an appeal.
Contact a South Carolina workers’ compensation attorney
Hearing loss arising out of employment may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. However, proving the required elements of a claim can be a challenge. If you notice symptoms of hearing loss that might be linked to conditions at work, you should contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney for an initial consultation as soon as possible.
At Smith, Born, Leventis, Taylor & Vega, our attorneys have extensive experience with workers’ comp claims involving hearing loss and other occupational diseases, and we offer free, no-obligation consultations to give you the help and information you need to get back on the road to recovery.
Contact us today to see how we can help you get maximum compensation for your claim.