Safety and OSHA News

Will company have to pay big for workers’ gradual hearing losses?

When it comes to workers’ comp benefits, is employee hearing loss over a long period of time different from other injuries suffered in the workplace? The answer is key in a lawsuit by more than 40 workers.

Peter Becker and more than 40 other employees sued Murphy Oil Corp. for hearing loss from long-term exposure at the company’s Meraux, LA, refinery.

Becker and the others started working for Murphy as young men and continued for 25 to more than 30 years, until retirement. In many cases, their employment predated the start of OSHA in 1971 and continued after the first workplace noise regulations were enacted.

The workers were all exposed to loud noise and weren’t provided hearing protection. A medical specialist testified at trial that working at the Murphy plant was the most significant factor in their hearing losses.

Murphy tried to get the lawsuit thrown out using a few arguments. First, it said the workers were aware for more than one year that they were exposed to loud noise at the refinery, so the statute of limitations had run out.

However, the court noted that hearing loss is gradual and the workers simply attributed it to getting older. Therefore, the judges said the statute of limitations wasn’t applicable in this case.

Murphy also claimed noise below federally regulated levels couldn’t be considered negligence. The court also rejected that argument.

The company also argued that the hearing loss should be covered instead by workers’ compensation.

Not so, said the court. Louisiana courts had previously ruled that gradual hearing loss isn’t a compensable injury under the state’s workers’ comp law because gradual hearing loss doesn’t meet the definition of an “accident.”

In the first six cases heard, the court ruled in favor of five of the former workers and awarded each one $50,000 in damages plus future medical costs which ranged from $18,000 to $25,000.

The trials for the remaining workers are likely to be similar to these first test cases with similar awards. Murphy could be out hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of dollars.

An interesting note: The court observed that previous rulings regarding occupational exposure to asbestos were “instructive” in the hearing loss case. What do long-term noise and asbestos exposure have in common? Illness or injury connected with the two exposures both occur over time, not as a result of one incident.

What do you think about the court’s ruling? Let us know in the Comments Box below.

(Becker v. Murphy Oil, Court of Appeal, 4th Circuit, State of LA, No. 2010-CA-1519, 6/2/2011)

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Comments

  1. In as much as the company did not provide its staff with the approprate hearing protective equipment, they should be heavily fined and if investigation reveals that workers in that company are still being exposed to noise in the workplace without the requisite hearing protective equipment given, the company should be closed and the owners imprisoned

  2. I think this is outrageous and it only demonstrates what is wrong with our society. I think that we should all be accountable for ourselves. They weren’t little kids when they started working their. I have been in the same industry for 24 years and I just had my hearing tested and there is hardly any change in my hearing since I started having it checked each year for the 10 to 12 years. And for a very long time my employer didn’t supply hearing protection but I was smart enough to know that I should be wearing it so I did. These guys honestly didn’t know better?

    Our society is so busy trying to find ways to blame someone else for our poor decisions. I am wondering if these guys were playing golf in an electrical storm would they have to have someone esle tell them it is not safe to play and they could get electricuted. I would have to believe that some time in their life someone told them that loud noises were not good for your hearing, at least I would hope their parents did. Yes the company should supply hearing protection and if not go and complain and request some. I do not believe Murphy oil neglected them hearing protection for all those years. How many didn’t wear them when they were provided? Of course no one ever does that. I am sure they all did all the time if you ask them. Highly doubtful.

    To me it is no different than sueing gun manufacturers for selling loud guns but not suppling you with ear protection when you purchase the gun. Since they don’t provide them when you buy a gun then you should chose not to wear any and then sue them when you lose your hearing. Give us all a break please. Man up and be responsible. Thanks, Mr. Reasonable.

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