The last decade has seen a dramatic shift in the landscape of workplace health and safety claims. A clampdown by the insurance industry on whiplash injuries – once the bane of insurers – has been replaced with a new cash cow for litigation lawyers: industrial deafness.

The Association of British Insurers recently announced its plans to mount a lobbying campaign targeting the phenomenon; but while it scrambles to stem the ever increasing tide of claims, what can businesses do to prevent industrial deafness in the workplace and the chance of being on the wrong side of an industrial deafness allegation?

Industrial deafness is a deterioration of a person’s hearing over time due to prolonged exposure to excessive noise, or by a sudden loud noise, known as an acoustic trauma. In 2012, UK Insurance company AXA reported more claims for industrial deafness than any other type of work place illness, at a cost of 23 million pounds. Earlier this year, Aviva, the UK’s largest general insurer reported 1,700 industrial deafness claims for the second quarter. This represented a four-fold increase compared to the same period of 2010 – a trend seemingly at odds with the drastic improvements in work health and safety conditions in recent decades, particularly in factories and warehouses.

Is Enough Being Done To Prevent Industrial Deafness?

On paper, methods to prevent industrial deafness appear to be falling short. On November 6 of this year insurer RSA said “the volume being handled by UK insurers more than tripled from 3000 cases a month to 10,000 a month last year”.

According to claims lawyers, this increase is due to the insidious nature of industrial deafness and an increase in awareness of the condition. Insurance companies, however, see it as the latest instance of underhanded ‘claims farming’, and a marketing push by litigation lawyers.

The HSE estimates that over one million workers in the UK alone are at risk of some form of hearing damage resulting from their work environments, but not all of these workers are involved in heavy ‘industrial’ work, as perhaps the name of the condition misleadingly implies.

In 2012, The Chartered Insurance Institute noted that industrial deafness claims have been steadily increasing in industries other than those involved in heavy production, namely light to medium industries – painters, decorators and store-men.

A quick internet search for workplace deafness lawyers shows a concerted push by litigation lawyers to target claimants from a wide range of industries, including building sites, call centres, and bars and nightclubs, where decibel levels can reach as high as 110 decibels. Current Control of work Noise Regulations introduced in 2005 require protective equipment to be worn by workers when exposed to decibel levels over 85.

Under clause 5.2 of the regulations, employers are expected to undertake a risk assessment of their workplace by means of “observation of specific working practices” and “reference to relevant information on product levels of noise”. These rather ambiguous assessment instructions are hardly helpful to employers attempting to understand their compliance with noise regulations.

This is compounded by the modern design of a commercial buildings, including offices, which swap soft, absorptive materials of buildings of old, for sleek, cleanable, but highly noise reflective surfaces such as glass and hard wooden floors. These surfaces create uncomfortable sound environments, and in many cases exacerbate pre-existing sound issues and add to the decibel levels of a room.

What Can Businesses Do?

Now more than ever, all commercial enterprises need to take a complex and in-depth look at their sound environment, regardless of a room or building’s design.

Industrial Acoustics can be a murky environment to navigate for the untrained; for business owners knowing whether your noise environment meets regulatory standards is by no means simple.

Luckily, Acoustic consultants abound in the UK, and are a good first step towards working to create good industrial acoustics and reduce deafness claims and instances. Here are just a few:

A.S.K Acoustics
RBA Acoustics
Acoustics Plus

The illusion of ‘industrial’ deafness as a problem exclusive to the hardy factory worker needs to be thrown out the window, lest litigation lawyers continue to leverage ignorance amongst employers across all industries.

For more information on industrial noise solutions, then visit our ‘Industrial Acoustics’ page. For dozens of other commercial solutions, follow the ‘Your Space’ tab above.