How to Handle Workers Comp Hearing Loss Claims

Employees who are subjected to high level of noises on the job without proper hearing protection will eventually lose some or all of their ability to hear. To complicate the amount of hearing loss resulting from the job, everyone loses their ability to hear to some degree as they age. The issue that confronts the workers compensation adjuster is paying the employee for the work related hearing loss, but not compensating the employee for age related hearing loss, or for hearing loss due to non-work related activities like snowmobiling, using a chain saw and hunting/target shooting.
The investigation of a workers compensation hearing loss claim involves the detailed review of the medical records related to the employees hearing. Often obtaining the medical records can be a challenge for the work comp adjuster. When a 60 year old employee files a hearing loss claim, locating and obtaining the hearing test records for employment 30 years earlier is difficult. It becomes even more complicated if the employee worked for a different employer 30 years ago, that is no longer in business. (WCxKit)
The medical record the work comp adjuster is looking for in their search of the employees medical history is called an audiogram. An audiogram is a test conducted in a sound proof room by an audiologist or by an otolaryngologist. The results of the test are displayed on a graph that reflects the ability or inability of the employee to hear various levels of sounds.
The results of the audiogram measure the employees hearing impairment using the American Medical Associations Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment (in most states, some states use other measuring systems). The employees ability to hear is measured in Hertz (Hz) with a Hz being the measurement of sound waves per second. The ability to hear is normally measured at 500, 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 6,000 and 8,000 Hz. 
The work comp adjuster will have the employee tested by an audiologist or otolaryngologist to determine the employees current hearing ability. The results of the current audiogram will be compared to the audiogram previously completed on the employee to ascertain the increased in hearing loss, if any.
If the new audiogram reflects an increase in the employee's hearing loss, the employee will need to be examined by an otolaryngologist to determine if the hearing loss is due to a conductive loss, a perceptive loss or a mixture of the two types. A conductive hearing loss is caused by a defect in the middle ear or external ear due to disease or injury. It is not caused by noise in the work place. A perceptive hearing loss is may be caused by noise in the work place, or aging, or infectious disease. If the otolaryngologist determines the hearing loss is a conductive hearing loss, the claim can be denied. If the otolaryngologist determines the hearing loss is a perceptive hearing loss, or a mixture of the two types of hearing loss, the claim will continue.
In most states the settlement of a hearing loss is done by a schedule of injuries which specifies the amount an employee can be compensated for the loss of hearing in one ear – a monaural hearing loss, or the loss of hearing in both ears – a binaural hearing loss. By comparing the employees prior audiogram(s) with the new audiogram, a percentage loss of hearing can be established which is applied to the schedule of injuries chart.
The most common problem the work comp adjuster will run into in handling the hearing loss claim is locating the previous audiogram(s). If the previous audiogram(s) can not be located, or if there were no previous audiogram(s), the adjuster will be confronted with the employee or the employees attorney claiming all the hearing loss is due to the current job, with assertions that the employee had perfect hearing prior to starting work for the current employer. (But the 60 year old employee won't mention that his favor hobbies are hunting and snowmobiling, and that he never wears any type of hearing protection while hunting or riding his snowmobile).
While the adjuster will prevail on the otolaryngologist to establish the amount of hearing loss that can be connected to the employees job position, there are much better ways of fighting (and winning) the hearing loss claims. Here are some suggestions on what the employer can do to eliminate or at least reduce the size of hearing loss claims:
1.     All employees who are constantly exposed to noise or who will sometimes be exposed to excessive noise should have an audiogram completed as a part of their pre-employment hiring requirements. This will provide a baseline in case of a future hearing loss claim. The pre-employment audiogram should be kept as a part of the employees records forever. (Just because the employee leaves your employment does not prevent the employee from filing a hearing loss claim decades later). If the employee does present a hearing loss claim in the future, the audiogram will limit the potential claim payment to the amount of hearing loss that occurred during the employment with your company. [An optional approach is to administer an audiogram to the employee prior to their departure for a new job or retirement, but then you may be buying a bunch of small hearing loss claims.]
2.      Know your noise level. Many employers know that their factory, construction site, equipment or machinery creates noise, but do not know how loud it actually is or if the level of noise will harm the employee's hearing. Do a risk assessment by having the decibel level of your work checked. By recording the noise level, the risk manager can determine the best ways to reduce the noise level. Any noise level exceeding 85 decibels should be addressed.
3.      If the employee is regularly around lawn mowers, chainsaws, jackhammers, table saws, bulldozers, etc., where they are constantly exposed to noise levels above 85 decibels, an audiogram should be completed yearly. [OSHA is currently reviewing their requirements on sound levels with new recommendations expected in 2011 that may lower the decibel levels requiring hearing protection to 80 decibels].
4.      All employees who work in an environment where they are continuously exposed to noise should be required to wear hearing protection. Quality earplugs or earmuffs are much less expensive than paying for a hearing loss claim. Employees annual performance reviews and wage/salary increases should be tied to their compliance with the mandatory use of hearing protection. 
5.      All employees should be provided with safety materials that emphasis hearing protection.   Not only should the safety materials cover hearing protection at work, but also it should cover their away from work activities and the damage loud noises (including loud music in headsets) will do their hearing. (WCxKit)

The use of audiograms is the best way to measure the amount of hearing loss. A program requiring an audiogram of every new hire will reduce the employers exposure to hearing loss claims. The best way to handle hearing loss claims is to prevent them from occurring to began with. The employer who encompasses hearing protection into their safety program will eliminate most hearing loss claims and reduce the cost of the hearing claims that do occur. 


Author Rebecca Shafer, JD, President of Amaxx Risks Solutions, Inc. is a national expert in the field of workers compensation. She is a writer, speaker and website publisher. Her expertise is working with employers to reduce workers compensation costs, and her clients include airlines, healthcare, printing/publishing, pharmaceuticals, retail, hospitality and manufacturing.
Contact: or 860-553-6604.

Workers Comp Resource Center Newsletter

Do not use this information without independent verification. All state laws vary. You should consult with your insurance broker or agent about workers comp issues.

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