A guide for workers suffering from hearing loss after exposure to noise or toxic chemicals
Montana workers are exposed to a wide variety of occupational hazards on a daily basis. One of the less visible, but no less impactful, risks that many workers face is occupational hearing loss. This gradual, often unnoticed condition can result from prolonged exposure to noise, sudden loud noises, or even certain chemicals.
Hearing loss not only affects a worker’s quality of life, communication ability, and mental health, but it can also have significant implications for safety in the workplace. Unfortunately, as industrial environments can be noisy, many employees may not realize the damage that’s being inflicted upon their hearing until it is too late.
The good news is that in the event of work-related hearing loss, most Montana workers are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits that can help address health care costs and other associated expenses.
A brief overview of hearing loss
Also known as presbycusis, hearing loss affects over 50% of Americans over the age of 75 and tends to progress with age. The 2 primary causes of hearing loss are injury and age.
There are 3 types of hearing loss, categorized according to the part of the ear affected:
- Sensorineural, involving the inner ear
- Conductive, involving the middle or outer ear
- Mixed, involving a mixture of inner and outer ear damage
Workplace hearing loss statistics
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one-quarter of all American workers have been exposed to hazardous noise levels during their working careers, including approximately 22 million who have been exposed within the last year.
Of those workers exposed to hazardous noise levels, 53% report that they were not using hearing protection at the time of exposure.
The CDC also reports that about 12% of U.S. workers have hearing problems, and another 8% suffer from tinnitus (ringing sound in the ears).
Signs of hearing loss
Signs of hearing loss can vary depending on the severity and type of hearing impairment, but these are some common signs to look out for:
- Struggling to understand conversations, especially in noisy environments or when multiple people are speaking.
- Regularly asking others to repeat themselves or to speak louder.
- Finding it challenging to participate in group discussions or follow conversations involving multiple speakers.
- Frequently needing to turn up the volume on electronic devices, such as televisions or radios, to hear clearly.
- Perceiving speech as muffled, distorted, or lacking clarity, making it difficult to comprehend spoken words.
- Struggling to hear high-pitched sounds, such as birds chirping, doorbells, or certain consonant sounds like “s,” “f,” or “th.”
- Feeling uncomfortable in social situations or avoiding them altogether due to difficulties with hearing and understanding others.
- Experiencing tinnitus, a ringing, buzzing, or hissing sound in one or both ears that is not caused by an external source.
- Having difficulties understanding phone conversations, particularly when using a landline phone.
- Misinterpreting or misunderstanding instructions, directions, or information provided in conversations or public announcements.
Common risk factors for hearing loss
It’s not always easy to pinpoint the cause of hearing loss because it can occur for a variety of reasons, some of which include:
- Age. As we age, hearing loss becomes increasingly likely.
- Genetics. Those with a genetic predisposition for hearing loss will be more at risk when exposed to all risk factors.
- Workplace noise. Hazardous noise that is constant or acute enough to damage parts of the ear is exceedingly common.
- Recreational noise. Loud music, automotive noise, fireworks, and many other forms of recreation can damage the ears.
- Medication. Most medications that can cause hearing loss will list this as a side effect.
- Illness. Some forms of infection can cause hearing loss.
- Chemicals. Prolonged exposure to certain toxic chemicals can cause hearing loss over time.
What noise levels are unsafe at work?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides guidance on safe noise exposure levels. In workplaces where these levels will be exceeded, employers are required to provide hearing protection.
Noise at various levels is rated for safety according to the duration of exposure. The following are considered safe levels of noise:
- 90 decibels for 8 hours
- 92 decibels for 6 hours
- 95 decibels for 4 hours
- 97 decibels for 3 hours
- 100 decibels for 2 hours
- 102 decibels for 1.5 hours
- 105 decibels for 1 hour
- 110 decibels for 30 minutes
- 115 decibels for 15 minutes (or less)
As a point of reference, the noise level of a typical residential lawn mower is around 105 to 110 decibels. Any worker who is to be exposed to these designated noise levels for the corresponding periods must be provided with hearing protection.
What chemicals cause hearing loss at work?
Likely the least well-known cause of hearing loss is exposure to ototoxic chemicals. Various kinds of ototoxic chemicals can cause damage to different parts of the ear and also make a person more sensitive to hazardous noise levels over time.
Like hazardous noise levels, dangerous exposure to ototoxic chemicals varies. Factors affecting hazardous conditions include:
- Frequency of exposure
- Strength of exposure (chemical potency)
- Duration of exposure
According to the CDC, the top ototoxic chemicals include:
- Mercury compounds
- Organic tin compounds
- Carbon monoxide
- Hydrogen cyanide
- Tobacco smoke
- Certain cancer drugs
Which workers are at the greatest risk of hearing loss?
The CDC also reports that certain workers are more likely to experience occupational hearing loss than others. As such, these workers should wear appropriate hearing protection and have their hearing regularly checked.
So which workers have the highest risk of hearing loss?
Manufacturing workers employed in the following industries are at an increased risk of hearing loss due to ototoxic chemicals:
- Metal fabrication
- Heavy machinery
- Leather production
- Paper manufacturing
- Furniture production
- Ship and boat construction
- Electrical equipment manufacturing
- Solar cell production
Other workers at risk of hearing loss from chemicals and/or noise levels include:
- Oil and gas extraction workers
- Public safety workers
- Workers in the printing industry
- Workers who fuel large vehicles and aircraft
Who is covered under Montana workers’ comp?
Most employers in Montana with 1 or more employees are required to carry worker’s compensation insurance, which provides benefits to workers who become injured or ill at work. This insurance covers injuries from one-time accidents as well as occupational diseases like hearing loss that occur over time.
To get these benefits, an eligible worker doesn’t have to prove that their employer or anyone else was at fault. They only need to prove that their illness, injury or disease was directly caused by their job.
Unfortunately, this can sometimes be challenging in cases of occupational hearing loss since there can be many contributing factors, so it’s highly recommended that you consult an experienced work injury attorney if you plan to file a workers’ compensation claim.
How do you prove hearing loss is work-related?
Proving that hearing loss is work-related typically involves gathering evidence and demonstrating a connection between the individual’s occupational noise or chemical exposure and the resulting hearing impairment.
Here are some ways that an experienced attorney can help prove work-related hearing loss:
- Gathering medical records that clearly indicate the hearing loss, with details from audiograms and evaluations by healthcare professionals, preferably an audiologist or an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist.
- Demonstrating a link between the hearing condition and exposure to noise or chemicals at work, as per the medical expert’s opinion.
- Creating a detailed occupational history that includes all of the claimant’s past and present jobs where exposure to loud noise or harmful chemicals occurred.
- Comparing the worker’s hearing at the start of their employment (if baseline audiograms are available) with their current hearing levels.
- Collecting evidence of the noise levels or chemical exposure at the workplace, such as readings from noise or chemical monitoring equipment.
- Gathering company records, safety inspections, or violation citations that prove the employer was aware of the hazardous noise or chemical levels.
- Employing an audiologist, occupational medicine specialist, or other expert witnesses to testify that the hearing loss is consistent with noise or chemical exposure encountered in the claimant’s line of work.
- Comparing the conditions of the claimant’s workplace to state, federal or industry standards for noise and chemical exposure and highlighting any violations or excessive levels.
- Demonstrating through medical and lifestyle history that the hearing loss is not likely attributed to non-occupational activities, age, or pre-existing conditions.
- Establishing a clear timeline that shows the progression of hearing loss in correlation with the period of employment at the noisy or chemically hazardous workplace.
What types of workers’ comp benefits are available for hearing loss?
If you qualify for workers’ compensation due to hearing loss at work, you may be eligible for the following types of benefits:
- Medical benefits. Coverage for the cost of all necessary medical treatment, including appointments with doctors and specialists, medication, surgeries, and hearing aids
- Wage loss benefits. Coverage of two-thirds of your lost wages due to an inability to work.
While hearing loss is seldom associated with work-related fatalities, death benefits are also available to surviving family members of workers who die from injuries or illnesses caused by their jobs.
How to obtain workers’ comp benefits for occupational hearing loss
To apply for workplace hearing loss compensation in Montana, you’ll need to take the following steps:
- Seek medical care to get a diagnosis, which often includes audiometric testing, so you’ll have documentation that links your hearing loss to your job. You’ll need to see an employer-approved physician unless it’s an emergency.
- Report your hearing loss to your employer within 30 days of your injury or the discovery of your hearing loss.
- Next, it’s your employer’s responsibility to submit the proper forms and file a claim with their insurer after being notified of your injury or illness.
- The worker’s comp insurer will then either approve or deny your claim (usually within 30 days after receiving it).
- If your claim is denied, you can file an appeal. This must be done within 2 years.
It’s highly recommended that you enlist the help of an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer early on in the process to ensure your rights are protected.
Contact a Montana work injury attorney for help with your hearing loss claim
The process of filing for and obtaining worker’s compensation can be difficult, especially if you’re recovering from a workplace injury. Lost wages, medical costs, and the stress of life after a workplace injury can be a major struggle. Fortunately, help is available.
The experienced workers’ compensation attorneys at Murphy Law Firm have more than 75 years of combined experience helping injured Montana workers get the compensation they deserve. We can help connect you with medical experts and negotiate with your employer’s insurance company to get you maximum compensation after a hearing loss injury.
Contact us today for a free consultation of your case.