If you suffer a work-related hearing loss, you should see a doctor and file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, but your employer’s insurance company might try to dispute your claim. A worker’s comp attorney can help you prove that your hearing injury is work-related, guide you through the claims process, and appeal your claim if it’s denied.
Work-Related Hearing Loss
Hearing loss falls into two categories. Conductive hearing loss results from blockages in the middle or external ear, while sensorineural hearing loss is caused by injury to the auditory nerve or the inner ear. Tinnitus, which is a constant ringing or buzzing in the ears, often sets in as well when you lose hearing. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), between 20 and 30 million American employees work in environments that put them at risk of conductive or sensorineural hearing problems or tinnitus. Causes of on-the-job hearing loss include:
One-time, repeated, or continuous exposure to loud sounds at work can destroy inner ear hair cells and result in hearing loss for workers in the mining, construction, and manufacturing sectors. Noisy machinery, explosions, loud engines, amplified music, and gunfire are among the sounds that can damage your ears on the job. The louder the noise and the longer your exposure, the more hearing you stand to lose.
A hard impact to the head can pierce your eardrum or damage bones in your ear, causing a loss of hearing. Some traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) can also affect the regions of the brain that control auditory impulses.
Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals
Ingesting, inhaling, or touching ototoxic chemicals like those listed below can damage your ears:
- Hydrogen cyanide
- Carbon Monoxide
- Mercury compounds
Employees in the construction, manufacturing, utilities, agriculture, and mining industries run the greatest risk of hearing loss from exposure to ototoxic chemicals.
Workers’ Compensation for Hearing Loss
If you can prove that you sustained your hearing loss in the course of performing your job duties, you’re generally entitled to workers’ comp benefits that cover your medical expenses, including hearing aids, as well as two-thirds of your lost wages. It’s important to remember, though, that people often lose their hearing due to aging, infection, and loud noise that occurs outside the workplace.
For this reason, you have a higher burden of proof in a hearing loss claim than you might have for an easily verifiable physical injury such as a broken bone. To save money, your employer’s insurance company, which pays workers’ comp claims, is likely to contend that your hearing loss is not work-related.
Your Burden of Proof
To collect workers’ comp benefits for hearing loss in Virginia, you must show medical evidence to prove:
- You sustained your hearing loss in the course of doing your job.
- Your hearing loss was caused primarily by the conditions of your employment.
- You have an average hearing loss of 27 decibels or more.
The Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission (VWC) requires that you meet this burden by having your hearing tested by an audiologist. You’ll undergo an audiogram with a pure-tone audiometer, without a hearing aid and with no allowance for presbycusis (age-induced hearing loss). Your hearing loss will be recorded in decibels at 500 to 3,000 cycles per second, and your average decibel loss will be expressed as a percentage of the compensable hearing loss in each of your ears.
How Weekly Wage Benefits Are Determined
A hearing loss of 90 decibels or more in one ear is considered a total and permanent hearing loss, for which you can receive weekly wage benefits for 50 weeks. If your hearing loss is less than 90 decibels, the number of weeks for which you’ll receive benefits is laid out in the VWC hearing loss table. A 50-decibel loss, for example, is 38.3% compensable and will allow you approximately 19 weeks of wage loss benefits.
The Role of Your Attorney
The insurer might challenge the results of your audiogram. In such a case, it’s wise to enlist the services of a workers’ comp attorney who can:
- Verify the results of your test by presenting your medical evidence and introducing expert testimony
- Investigate to determine whether OSHA regulations regarding noise levels and ear protection were violated in your workplace
- Counter the insurer’s tactics to delay or dispute your claim
- Appeal your claim if it’s denied
- Negotiate a lump-sum settlement in some cases
What to Do After a Work-Related Hearing Loss
Report your hearing loss to your supervisor as soon as you become aware of it. After your employer files a First Report of Injury (FROI), submit a “Claim for Benefits” form from the VWC website and see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. Follow your doctor’s orders and retain receipts for your treatments. Consult a workers’ comp lawyer to make sure you pursue your claim properly and promptly.