Audiometric findings in call centre workers exposed to acoustic shock
Proceedings Institute of Acoustics, 25, (4), .
More and more people in the United Kingdom are using the telephone to interact with
suppliers of goods and services. This growth of call centre usage has required an increase in the number of call centre workers; an estimated 2% of the UK working population is now employed in call centres 1. This relatively new occupation has found itself subject to a longrecognised occupational hazard: acoustic shock.
Acoustic shock is broadly defined as a sudden and unexpected burst of noise transmitted through the call handler’s headset; this noise is usually high frequency. The signal may be caused by interference on the telephone line, by mis-directed faxes, or by a smoke or fire alarm sounding at the caller’s end. There have been instances of malicious callers blowing whistles into the sending handset.
The level of such unexpected acoustic events may be subjectively high, much greater than the call handler’s desired speech listening level. However, the earphone output level may have been limited by fast-acting compression circuitry in the call-handling equipment, or as a last resort by peak-clipping in the earphone itself. For headsets as worn by call centre workers, the maximum output sound pressure level is limited to 118 decibels re 20 mN or to 118 dB(A) 2,3,4. In response to such unexpected loud sounds, the natural reaction is to remove the headset quickly, thus limiting the exposure duration to a few seconds. The call handler may be shocked or startled by the piercing noise, but exposure to these acoustic events is not sufficient to cause hearing loss as assessed by conventional methods. However, other auditory and neurological symptoms may develop, resulting in a personal injury claim against the call handler’s employer.
This paper presents summaries of the symptoms of eighteen UK call centre workers
making compensation claims. The findings are taken from the reports by claimants’ and
defendants’ medical examiners.
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