Permanent, work-related hearing loss can result when an employee is exposed to an unexpected loud noise, like an explosion at a manufacturing plant. However, many cases of occupationally-related hearing loss are caused by excessive noise exposure over months, or years in a work environment that is too loud. Difficulty hearing or understanding spoken words happens to most of us as we age, so it isn't always easy to identify a progressive hearing loss problem as work-related. It is even more difficult finding good information about what to do if you suspect that your worsening hearing problem is caused by your job.
Most employers whose employees are routinely exposed to loud noises at work require a base line hearing test when the employee is hired, and then an annual hearing test. Police officers and fire fighters, for example, are required by law to undergo an annual hearing test, called an audio gram, when the annual heart and lung medical exams are done. Police officers may wear protective hearing gear when re-certifying their weapons permits, but hearing protection obviously isn't handy during a shoot out, or during a chase with sirens wailing, or when on traffic patrol.
Large employers with loud equipment or very noisy work environments must hire occupational hygienists to measure noise levels to ensure compliance with national health and safety standards and to satisfy their insurers' loss control programs. A contested hearing loss claim might involve experts who disagree about what the noise exposure really is for an employee who is claiming hearing loss. Most denied hearing loss claims however, are denied because the insurer says that the employee knew about his hearing loss for weeks, months, or years before he or she filed a compensation claim. Those denials by the insurer are often upheld simply because the employee was confused about when to file a claim and what information to put on the claim form.
The same C-4 Claim for Compensation form used for work injuries caused by accidents is used for occupational illnesses, including occupational hearing loss. The box on the form that asks when the accident happened isn't relevant to an occupational hearing loss that happens gradually over time. Nonetheless, clinics insist that the employee fill in a date on that box. Sometimes the office personnel at the medical clinic will direct the employee to write in the date that the employee first noticed a hearing problem.
Nevada law requires that employees report occupational illnesses within 7 days. However, an employee rarely tells his employer about a hearing problem when the employee first notices that he or she is hard of hearing, unless the hearing loss results from a loud explosive-like noise. Usually, the employee has co-workers or family complain about having to repeat themselves before the employee takes the problem seriously. Ordinarily, there is a decrease in hearing ability long before most people are motivated to get their hearing tested.
In order to avoid a denial of this important claim, however, the employee should complete a written Notice of Occupational Disease with the employer, and ask the employer where to go to complete a Claim for Compensation form as soon as the employee suspects an occupational hearing loss. The decision to wear amplification can always be made later, once the claim is accepted.
Hearing aids are expensive. Hearing loss claims often require a reopening every couple of years to replace batteries or outdated equipment, particularly if the hearing loss is progressive. Additionally, the employee may be entitled to a permanent partial disability award for the occupational hearing loss. Don't overlook your right to benefits under the Nevada Occupational Disease Act for a hearing loss that is caused by occupational noise exposure.
--Written by Virginia Hunt, Hunt Law Office