The statistics for men and women suffering some form of hearing loss in the UK should give real cause for concern. It is too readily assumed that the advance of research, awareness, technology and legislation had solved most of the circumstances that give rise to widespread noise induced hearing loss.
The reality is that one in six of the population, or 10 million people in the UK have a hearing impairment, of whom, more than 800,000 are severely or profoundly deaf, and over 55 per cent are over 60. Incredibly, individuals allow an average ten years to elapse from first awareness of possible deafness causes being responsible for no longer hearing clearly before consulting a GP.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), industrial deafness as a result of exposure to excessive noise ( almost always in the workplace) is the single biggest cause of permanent hearing impairment, worldwide.
Therefore, it should be doubly concerning to learn that in April, a Supreme Court overturned a 2009 Court of Appeal’s award of over £3,000 to a textile worker the court recognised and was medically proven that the cause of hearing loss and tinnitus was a result of 20 years of working in different factories. The case had been pursued for over eight years.
The case focused on the lawful requirements on employers before the introduction of the new Noise at Work Regulations, 1990. At the time, it was successfully argued that the average employer should have known that noise levels of 85 decibels and above were unsafe, and was obliged to provide workers hearing protection after 1978.
However, the Supreme Court ruled that the original judgement, which held that “the employers should have done more were dependent to a significant degree on hindsight, and therefore placed an undue burden on employers”.
As was pointed out by the plaintiff’s solicitor, the ruling seemed to reposition an employer’s duties to be based upon straightforward compliance with enforceable regulations rather than responsibility for employee protection.