Can you receive workers’ compensation benefits for an eye or ear injury that happened at work?
Most of us know the elation of being offered a job after applying for it.
But what if you knew the job would eventually cause you to lose your hearing or your eyesight?
For many Americans, eye and ear injuries are so common in their workplaces that the injuries are almost expected. Fortunately, most eye and ear injuries are covered by workers’ compensation insurance.
How common are eye and ear injuries in the workplace?
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 20,000 workplace eye injuries occur every year. Often, these injuries require the injured worker to miss workdays in order to recover. The lost productivity, medical treatment, and workers’ compensation benefits associated with the injury cost an estimated $300 million a year.
Ear injuries are just as common in the workplace. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hearing loss is among the most common work-related illnesses. Over 11% of workers have difficulty hearing, and nearly 1 out of 4 cases of worker hearing difficulty are caused by work-related exposures.
How do eye and ear injuries happen at work?
An eye injury refers to any injury to the eye or surrounding area, including adjacent tissue and bone structure. There are a million ways an eye can be injured at work, but the most common ways include:
- Foreign objects striking or scraping the eye. Foreign objects can enter the eye and cut, scrape, or otherwise damage the cornea. Objects in the workplace that commonly enter the eye include metal chips, splintered wood, shards of glass, grease, oil, and dust. These substances are often ejected by tools or fall from an above worker.
- Foreign objects penetrating the eye. Objects like nails, staples, or slivers of wood or metal can penetrate the eyeball and result in a permanent loss of vision.
- Blunt force trauma. Even if an object doesn’t cut, scratch, or penetrate the eye, it can cause serious damage. A strong blow to the eye can cause bleeding inside the eye, retinal detachments, and injuries to the bones around the eye.
- Chemicals or thermal burns. Industrial chemicals or cleaning products are common causes of chemical burns. Thermal burns can also occur, often among welders. These burns routinely damage workers’ eyes and surrounding tissue.
- Ultraviolet rays. Sources of ultraviolet radiation are found in many workplaces and can lead to a number of eye diseases and disorders, including cancer and cataracts. Common sources of ultraviolet radiation include welding arcs, germicidal lamps, and lasers.
- Infectious diseases. Health care workers and janitorial staff are particularly prone to acquiring infectious diseases. Some infectious diseases can be transmitted through the mucous membranes of the eye after direct exposure to blood splashes, respiratory droplets generated during coughing, or from touching the eyes with contaminated fingers or other objects.
- Computer usage. Office workers aren’t free from eye injury risks. Extended exposure to computer screens may cause migraine headaches, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness. This strain can also leave eyes parched and red, and even worse, dried out from lack of blinking, as computer screens and other digital displays reduce your blink rate by as much as 50%.
Industries where eye injuries are most common include:
- Electrical work
An ear injury is any injury that impairs hearing to the point that it impacts day-to-day activities.
The most common work-related conditions that lead to loss of hearing are loud noises and chemical exposure.
- Loud noises. Noise is considered harmful when it reaches 85 decibels. To put this in perspective, if a person has to raise their voice to speak with someone 3 feet away, the background noise is too loud.
- Chemicals. Ototoxic chemicals can cause hearing loss and make the ear more susceptible to noise. Ototoxic chemicals include solvents (styrene, trichloroethylene, toluene), metals and compounds (mercury compounds, lead, organic tin compounds), asphyxiants (carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide), nitriles (3-Butenenitrile, cis-2-pentenenitrile, acrylonitrile), and pharmaceuticals (certain antineoplastic agents).
Hearing loss that occurs gradually as you age is common. According to the Mayo Clinic, approximately 33% of people in the US between the ages of 65 and 75 have some degree of hearing loss. This hearing loss generally occurs as a result of the degeneration of inner ear structures over time.
However, premature hearing loss caused by loud noises or chemicals is different. This type of hearing loss doesn’t have to happen. What’s more, premature hearing loss is associated with a number of other serious problems, including cognitive decline, heart problems, and depression.
Further, ringing in the ears (tinnitus) often occurs along with premature hearing loss and can disrupt sleep and concentration, as well as lead to depression and anxiety.
Industries where ear injuries are most common include:
- Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas
- Wholesale and resale
Are eye and ear injuries covered by workers’ compensation insurance?
Here are some general things to keep in mind.
Most states require all employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance for their workers (which doesn’t typically include independent contractors).
Most injuries are covered by workers’ compensation insurance so long as the injury occurred during the course of employment. This generally means that the injury must have occurred while you were completing a work task. For example, if you’re a logger and you suffer an injury when a falling branch strikes you in the eye, you’re likely covered. On the other hand, if you’re driving to work and dust particles exit your car vent and scratch your cornea, you’re probably not covered.
Workers’ compensation typically pays medical expenses (including mileage reimbursements), wage loss benefits, and death benefits for certain dependents.
Wage loss benefits are generally calculated according to the nature of the injury, with injuries falling into 1 of 4 categories:
- Temporary partial disability: applicable to those who can still work but in a reduced capacity
- Temporary total disability: applicable to those who are temporarily unable to work
- Permanent partial disability: applicable to those who suffered a permanent injury but are still able to work in some capacity
- Permanent full disability: applicable to those whose injury is so severe that they’ll never be able to work again
Tips to protect your eyes and ears at work
Though eye injuries are devastating, many of them are preventable. As explained by Dr. Anne Summers at the American Academy of Ophthalmology:
“It takes very little effort to protect yourself from on-the-job hazards that can cause blinding eye injuries. We strongly advise workers and their employers not to let their guard down when it comes to eye protection.”
To protect your eyes at work, here are a few simple steps you can take:
- Know the eye safety dangers at work.
- Eliminate hazards before starting work. Use machine guarding, work screens, or other engineering controls.
- Use proper eye protection. The type of protection needed depends on the hazards in your workplace. All eye protection should be compliant with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations for eye and face protection.
- Follow the 20-20-20 rule. To help reduce eye strain and dry eye, take a break every 20 minutes by looking at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Looking at a distance allows your eyes to relax and return to a regular rate of blinking again.
- When using a digital device, adjust the low light filter setting to lower screen brightness or use a matte filter to reduce eye strain.
As with eye injuries, there are steps you can take to protect your ears and hearing. For example:
- Find out if the noise in your workspace is hazardous. If you have to raise your voice to speak with someone at arm’s length, then the noise is likely at a hazardous level. You can also check the noise level using a sound level meter app on your smartphone.
- Reduce noise at the source by using quieter machinery and tools.
- Enclose the source of the noise or place a barrier between you and the source.
- Increase the distance between you and the source of the noise.
- Reduce your time in noisy areas.
- Always wear hearing protection in noisy areas.
- Reduce or stop exposure to chemicals that may damage your hearing. If you have to use such chemicals, wear gloves, long sleeves, and eye protection.
Hearing and vision loss can impact your day-to-day life long after you retire from your job. If you suffered an eye or ear injury at work, use our free online legal directory to locate a workers’ compensation attorney in your area.
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