In North Carolina, does workers’ compensation cover hearing loss?

Workers’ compensation insurance is a protection that is meant to provide for employees when they are injured on the job. As clear-cut as it seems, sometimes claims are complicated. This is sometimes the case when an injury develops from a repetitive action or exposure at the workplace, rather than a one-time incident.

Hearing loss following frequent exposure to loud noises is an example of this. While this does qualify as a compensable injury, one man who suffered hearing loss after working 36 years at a paper plant recently took his worker’s compensation claim all the way to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

During this man’s career at the plant, he was reportedly exposed to a variety of noise levels. For four years he spent eight hours a day clearing land with an 800-horsepower diesel bulldozer. He did not wear hearing protection and the bulldozer had no muffler. The man also held various posts in the paper mill, including oiler, welder, pipe fitter, and millwright – often working with or on noisy machinery.

In addition, he was exposed to noise several times per month when steam pressure inside pipes was relieved through valves throughout the complex. This noise was reportedly so loud that it could be heard from miles away.

Wearing hearing protection was not mandatory at the paper plant until the mid- to late- 1980s. He wore it regularly after that, but he was not instructed how to do so properly.

When he began to suffer hearing loss, he filed a workers’ compensation claim at work and it was denied. But, the North Carolina Industrial Commission then argued that the prolonged exposure to noise at the plant did result in a compensable occupational disease. It awarded him weekly compensation for 51 weeks and also ordered the company to pay his related medical expenses and attorney’s fees.

The paper company appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which agreed with the commission’s decision. The court cited North Carolina law, which states that noise at work that exceeds 90 decibels is harmful. Noise this loud may lead to hearing loss.

The court also noted that occupational hearing loss claims are only invalid if the employee failed to use hearing protection devices that were provided properly by the employer.

Source: BLR Human Resource Network, “Is Worker’s Hearing Loss a Compensable, Work-Related Injury?” Dec. 6, 2011

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