Deaf workers accused of 'new whiplash' claims in insurance fraud

Firms are dismissive of complaints by employees who have suffered hearing loss in the workplace

Compensation claims for industrial deafness have risen by two thirds over the past two years, according to insurance and legal experts. Despite the increase, however, only one in 10 cases are being paid out amid claims of widespread fraud.

An estimated 80,000 claims were made last year, compared with 55,000 in 2012, according to the Institute of Actuaries. With only 10 per cent successfully receiving payouts, Industrial Deafness cases have been dubbed "the new whiplash" by some insurers. AXA insurance had more claims for industrial deafness than any other type of workplace injury or illness in 2012, at a cost of £26m. Aviva, one of Britain's largest insurance companies, is said to reject 85 per cent of new claims, stating that "the vast majority of these claims are fraudulent". But there is mounting concern the high number of alleged false claims may have a negative effect on those suffering from genuine hearing loss.

Sir Malcolm Bruce, MP and Vice Chair of the UK Parliamentary Group on Deafness, said: "There is certainly a danger for those affected by hearing loss to be swept up by the no-win no-fee promises from injury-based law firms, but it is important to stress that sufferers should seek help and advice from the NHS, who can provide the right support."

A recent crackdown on fraudulent whiplash claims may also be a factor: insurers now suspect injury-based law firms of encouraging clients to make lucrative claims against damage to hearing instead.

Hundreds of injury-based law firms advertise compensation sums online of up to £70,000. Unlike whiplash, however, deafness can be measured against objective criteria, making it easier to define and consequentially easier for claims to be accepted or rejected.

Clients typically receive between £3,000 and £5,000 in compensation for minor hearing loss or tinnitus. Employees must confirm that their workplace showed negligence over safety measures necessary to protect them against noise.

New claims against industrial deafness often date back several years to periods of less assured health and safety procedures. Chris Wood, Senior Policy and Research Officer at the charity Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID), said: "There is a higher prevalence of hearing loss in the north-east of England, where many people now in their 70s and 80s had to work in noisy environments without hearing protection."

Similarly, the increase in the number of cases may be related to the lowering of the noise threshold above which compensation can be claimed. Employers are now liable for exposing their workers to noise upwards of 80 decibels, and must provide protection even in situations when the wearing of protective headphones is not a legal requirement.

The Chairman of the parliamentary group on deafness, Sir Stephen Lloyd, said: "Awareness of the impact of excess noise on hearing in the 1970s and 1980s was not as good as it is today, so it stands to reason that some people may well have been adversely affected. However, a properly trained specialist should be able to ascertain whether or not deafness was due to excess noise in the workplace or a natural part of the ageing process."

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