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'Hearing' a New Issue for Call Center Workers

June 09, 2014

Hearing loss happens for many reasons; one of them is exposure to too much loud noise. This is a condition known as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL); it is the second most common occupational disease, reducing the quality of life for millions of people who suffer from it.


Many think NIHL is only a concern for construction, factory, industrial or airport workers, musicians and listeners, but this condition can also affect people that work in a call center. Many agents, in fact, have suffered work-related hearing loss. There are numerous reported cases of representatives who have been employed long term in a call center environment and have suffered hearing damage as a consequence of the noise over the telephone. Some agents were victim of problems due to the electrical equipment, such as faulty headphones/headsets.

A call center operator, who is wearing a conventional headset, may be prone to excessive noise levels without even realizing it, says Dave Joyce, national health, safety and environment officer at the Communication Workers' Union (CWU), which represents call center staff. He explains that a call center environment can be loud – periodically or consistently – causing concerns for the health of workers. Sure, the agent can control the sound level via the headset, but it is really important to look also at the total environment, says Tony Jones, marketing manager for contact centers at headset manufacturer Plantronics (News - Alert).

Jones warns about the symptoms associated with NIHL: pain in the ears, hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), which may be long-term or permanent. Agents that experience hearing damage could eventually lose their job.

What seemed to be a low-risk occupation is proving to be a possible cause of industrial deafness. Employees wearing a headgear set at a high volume for extended periods could suffer lifelong hearing loss. Experts involved in industrial claims that have worked closely with many victims of workplace hearing damage say their clients’ ears start to hurt or ring after long exposure to frequent, loud noise, or sound intensity. According to the University of Chicago Medical Center, hearing loss from noise can affect hearing permanently or temporarily.

The number of personal injury claims by call center workers is, in fact, increasing. Affected employees are normally compensated for the nonworking parts of the ear that are damaged through the use of headphones on the job. Health and Safety legislators are extremely concerned by these findings and in the EU, in addition to the U.S., NIHL is now being considered a serious issue.

Stephen Wheatley, Managing Director at LimitEar, a company with patented Hearing Dose Management (HDM) technology that can be integrated into any headphone or earpieces to help prevent NIHL, published research on Britain’s workforce where almost half (48 percent) of the respondents were concerned about losing their hearing. The study shows a growing need for employers to protect their staff effectively.

A recent post on the callcentrehelper.com website mentioned that a quarter of the U.K. workforce use headphones while at work, putting it at increased risk of noise-induced hearing loss. “Yet despite the regulations being in place to protect UK employees, the majority of respondents (79 percent) are unaware that their employer is legally required to protect them from Noise Induced Hearing Loss.”

Ralph Holme, Head of Biomedical Research at Action on Hearing Loss says it is “crucial that employers take responsibility for noise levels at work and put practical steps in place to ensure that employees’ hearing is protected.” The U.K.’s national independent watchdog for health and safety agrees that there are employers who fail to protect their agents’ safety and act negligently toward staff who spend long hours using telephones or headsets. They can potentially ruin call center workers' lives, and it is costing the industry millions of pounds in out-of-court settlements, confirms Joyce; he says agents are at risk of injury every moment they are handling calls.

Overall, the relative newness of the contact center agent’s role means employers have a lot to learn about the health and safety issues they can face. Therefore, to overcome risk of NIHL issues, all employers ought to consider using solutions for multichannel environments and, perhaps, find ways to be compliant with the Noise at Work Directive.


Edited by Rory J. Thompson



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