BT operators claim for acoustic shock

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The Independent Online

Lawyers are preparing dozens of compensation claims on behalf of deafened call centre workers who have complained of "acoustic shock" in what could become an increasingly prevalent industrial injury of the 21st century.

Lawyers are preparing dozens of compensation claims on behalf of deafened call centre workers who have complained of "acoustic shock" in what could become an increasingly prevalent industrial injury of the 21st century.

The lawyer representing 81 BT operators, whose cases are to be heard by the courts next year, said he suspected that many more call centre staff were at risk including employees in the emergency services and the Government Communications Headquarters GCHQ. The BT workers have complained of tinnitus and severe headaches after being subjected to piercing sounds through their headsets.

Adrian Fawden, advising the Communication Workers Union, said some of the sudden, loud noises reported may have been caused by automatic fire alarms, fax machines and even malicious callers sounding personal alarms. He said: "The results vary depending on the severity, from someone just going 'ouch!' and taking off the headset at one end to people having to take medical retirement, suffering hearing loss and dizziness, at the other."

Mr Fawden, of the London law firm Simpson Millar, said he began handling "acoustic shock" cases in the early 1990s, reaching settlements worth a total of £250,000 for more than 30 people. But the question of liability has not been decided in court. A BT spokesman said the company was "aware that this problem can occur" but some employers deny its existence.

Yesterday the Trades Union Congress published a report urging call centres to improve pay and work practices, saying the fast-growing industry needed to shed a sweatshop image. The TUC said call centre workers, who make up more than 2 per cent of Britain's workforce, were paid well below the UK average and many also suffered unacceptable conditions.