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Workers’ Compensation for Hearing and Vision Loss in New York

Offered by Pasternack, Tilker, Ziegler, Walsh, Stanton & Romano LLP

Know your rights if you sustained a disabling injury on the job

Few work injuries have a bigger long-term impact than injuries causing vision or hearing loss. Impaired vision or hearing can significantly affect your ability to do your job, to say nothing of the broader impacts on your future and your quality of life.

Workers who sustain these injuries have recourse through the workers’ compensation system. However, getting workers’ comp for an eye or ear injury can be complicated, and getting full value for a claim is not easy. The right legal representation will make all the difference.

How hearing loss occurs at work

Broadly speaking, there are three ways hearing loss can occur in the workplace. The first is immediate noise-induced hearing loss due to a single extremely loud burst of sound, such as an explosion or a gunshot. A sufficiently loud noise, especially without ear protection, can rupture the eardrum or damage the bones in the middle ear, causing sudden and permanent loss of hearing.

The second cause of occupational hearing loss is long-term noise exposure. This is common among people who work in loud environments, including construction, manufacturing, entertainment, transportation, and childcare. Over time, noise exposure causes damage to the hair cells in the ear that help to perceive sound waves.

In specific industries, workers may also be exposed to ototoxins (poisons that damage the ear). Some common ototoxins include industrial solvents like styrene, trichloroethylene, and toluene; compounds that contain certain metals like lead or mercury; and asphyxiants like carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. Workers may be exposed to ototoxins in occupations such as manufacturing, painting, printing, firefighting, and transportation.

Note that workers have “dual exposure” to both noise and ototoxic chemicals. This combined exposure can lead to greater hearing loss, even if the noise and toxic exposures are individually not enough to cause damage.

How vision loss occurs at work

Work-related vision loss is usually the result of a single incident. Many types of accidents can directly damage the eye – for example, the eye may be cut by flying shrapnel or burned by chemicals. Accidents involving heavy blunt force trauma to the face can break the bones in the eye socket. Depending on the type of injury, vision loss may be temporary or permanent.

Workers may also sustain vision damage through exposure to extremely bright lights at work, causing flash burns. This is a common injury for welders (welder’s flash or arc eye) because welding torches produce extremely bright ultraviolet light. Explosions and fires can also be bright enough to cause flash burns. Some types of lamps used in work contexts, such as sunlamps, halogen lamps, and flood lamps, can also cause flash burns if a worker looks directly into the light.

Vision loss may also be a symptom of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that damages the portions of the brain that process visual information.

Depending on the type and severity of the injury, work-related vision loss may be temporary or permanent.

What’s covered by workers’ compensation for hearing and vision loss in New York?

If your hearing or vision loss was caused by your job, then you can get workers’ compensation benefits, including:

Medical treatment

First, workers’ comp pays for medical treatment, medication, and medical devices needed for your hearing or vision injury. That includes appointments with doctors such as an optometrist, ophthalmologist, audiologist, or otolaryngologist (ENT). It includes diagnostic procedures such as hearing and vision tests and medical procedures such as eye and ear surgery. It also includes medical devices, like glasses and hearing aids, and other medical expenses related to your work injury.

There is no co-pay, deductible, or other out-of-pocket expense; workers’ comp pays for the full cost of all reasonable and necessary medical treatment.

Disability benefits

Second, if your injury makes you unable to do your job, workers’ comp will pay for two-thirds of your average weekly wage while you are out of work. There is no end date to these benefits; they’re payable for the length of the injury.

If your injury forces you to take a “light duty” role for less pay, then workers’ comp will likewise pay two-thirds of the difference in income.

Schedule loss of use (SLU) awards

Finally, permanent hearing and vision injuries are eligible for schedule loss of use (SLU) awards in New York. An SLU claim is a cash award based on the injured body part, the percentage of disability, and your average weekly wage. In New York, loss of use of an eye is worth 160 weeks of compensation, and loss of use of an ear is worth 150 weeks.

So, for instance, if you lost 50% of your hearing in one ear, and your average weekly wage is $900, you would get $600 (two-thirds of your average weekly wage) times 75 weeks (the value of half an ear), for a total award of $45,000. Likewise, if you have injuries to multiple body parts (whether that’s both ears, both eyes, or an eye or ear and another part of the body), you get the combined SLU awards for all permanently injured parts. This is payable even if you don’t miss a single day of work.

SLU awards are calculated once you have reached maximum medical improvement (MMI), which means a doctor has evaluated that your condition has stabilized, and further improvement is unlikely. At that point, you need an appropriate medical test to determine your percentage of loss.

Legal challenges in hearing and vision loss claims in New York

Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system, meaning you don’t have to prove negligence on the part of your employer to get benefits. You only need to prove that you were at work when the injury happened. If you lost your hearing or vision in a single incident (such as an explosion), that’s usually not too difficult.

However, if your injury occurred over a period of time, such as via occupational noise exposure, there is more room for the insurance company to dispute whether the injury is actually work-related. Hearing loss, in particular, is often an occupational injury, but it can also occur as a natural result of aging or due to non-occupational noise exposure. One reason you need an experienced workers’ compensation attorney is to thoroughly investigate the causes of your hearing or vision loss and prove that it’s covered by workers’ compensation.

In addition, an attorney can help you navigate the many complexities of the workers’ compensation system as it applies to hearing and vision loss claims. For example, there may be disagreement regarding how your average weekly wage is calculated or how to measure your percentage of hearing or vision loss. There may also be disputes regarding whether a particular medical procedure or device is reasonable and necessary. Your attorney’s job is to advocate for your interests throughout this process and ensure that you get the maximum benefits you can recover by law.

Depending on the circumstances of your injury, you may also have a third-party personal injury claim – for instance, if your hearing or vision loss was due to defective safety equipment or the negligence of another party in causing an accident. You generally can’t sue your employer in civil court for a work injury, but you can sue another company or individual whose negligence caused your injury. A third-party claim can cover costs that are not covered by workers’ comp, such as pain and suffering or loss of quality and enjoyment of life. An experienced attorney can review your situation and explain all your legal options.

Talk to an experienced New York workers’ compensation attorney

Again, workers’ compensation claims for hearing or vision loss can be quite complex. They are also time-sensitive. There are strict deadlines that apply to workers’ compensation claims, and evidence that affects the strength of your case may be lost or destroyed if an attorney does not promptly intervene. Moreover, the sooner you get legal representation, the sooner your attorney can start dealing with your claim on your behalf while you focus on your health.

Workers’ compensation attorneys offer a free consultation and work on contingency, which means you don’t pay unless and until you win your case. In short, you have little to lose and potentially much to gain by talking to a lawyer about your options. If you sustained hearing or vision loss on the job in New York, talk to a work injury attorney in your area today.

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