What Do You Think: Did Tenn. Packaging Company Know Clamorous Environment Injured Worker’s Hearing?

12 Jan, 2024 Chris Parker


Jackson, TN (WorkersCompensation.com) -- Workers who suffer a gradual onset injury, such as hearing loss that occurs over a long period, must notify their employer of the injury within 30 days of when they knew or should have known they have a permanent injury. There is an exception, however, if the worker can show that, despite not receiving notice, the employer actually knew about the injury.

A recent Tennessee Supreme Court case addressing that situation involved an employee who worked for a packaging and delivery company for 33 years. For most of that time, she worked amongst noisy machinery.

The company took certain precautions. For instance, it required her and other employees to wear hearing protection gear. Also, every year someone came in in a mobile van to provide hearing screenings. There was no indication as to whether the company received the results of those tests or who conducted them.

The employee said she didn’t notice her hearing loss until after she retired in 2019. She assumed it was because of old age.

It was not until 2021, she said, when she met with a lawyer addressing her husband’s hearing loss, that she connected her hearing impairment to her 33 years of working amongst deafening machine sounds. At her hearing before the Court of Workers' Compensation Claims, she said she did not inquire into the cause of her hearing loss then because she knew then her loss was caused by the "loud noise."

The court explained that in the case of a gradually occurring injury, an employee must provide notice of the injury to the employer within 30 days after she knew or reasonably should have known she suffered a work-related injury that resulted in permanent physical impairment. In this case, the parties agreed that she failed to provide timely notice.

If an employee doesn’t meet that deadline, she may still seek benefits if she can provide that:

  1. The employer had actual knowledge of the injury; or
  2. The employee had a reasonable excuse for failing to provide timely written notice.

Did worker show that company knew about her hearing loss?
A. Yes. The employer conducted screenings, knew about the noisy environment, and required the employee to wear protective equipment.
B. No. There wasn’t enough information about who conducted the screenings and who saw the results to establish that the company knew about her injury.

If you selected B, you agreed with the court in Ernstes v. Printpack, Inc., No. 1 CA-CV 22-0671 (Tenn. 01/02/24), which held that the employee was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.

The court rejected the employee’s argument that her employer had actual notice of her gradual hearing loss because it knew she worked in a noisy environment, provided protective equipment, and provided hearing screenings.

As to the screenings, the court echoed the appeals board’s reasoning that there was no evidence that the employer received the screening results, or that the screenings were conducted by medical professionals with sufficient expertise to conduct them.

As to the timing of the notice, the court rejected the employee’s claim that it was not until September 2020 that she first connected her job to her hearing loss. “Employee testified that although she originally believed her hearing loss was attributable to her age, she knew the hearing loss was caused by ‘all the loud noise.’” the court wrote.

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