Investigating occupational deafness

Background

In 2002, a group of former textile workers started an action to try and change the basis on which compensation is paid for occupational deafness. Alleging they’d suffered deafness caused by noise generated from sewing and packing machines used in the hosiery and textile industry, they felt their employers should have done more to protect them against noise.

The employers had followed official advice given by the Health and Safety Executive at that time and as a result the employers were found not liable. A number of employees failed to show they had been deafened by the factory noise and all claims were dismissed by the High Court.

Exception to the rule

In one case, however, (Stephanie Baker vs. Quantum Clothing) it was accepted that there was a small element of noise-induced hearing loss. Mrs Baker took her case to the Court of Appeal, which subsequently reversed the High Court decision and applied a retrospective interpretation of legislation stating that employers were required to reduce noise levels below the official HSE guidance of the time.

Providing clarity for employers

Zurich challenged the Court of Appeal judgment on the basis that an employer’s culpability or duty of care cannot go beyond the acceptable standards of the relevant time. Now the long-awaited clarity we have been pursuing has been restored, to the benefit of employers across the country. The Supreme Court has now dismissed the Court of Appeal’s reversal – meaning the High Court’s original ruling applies and that these employers are not liable.

Victory for common sense

Any other decision would have had widespread implications across industry generally, not only in relation to noise, but other exposures where standards of acceptance have changed over the years. This ruling now provides certainty for both employers and insurers.