Over the last decade, the number of people employed in call centres has expanded rapidly. As this number has continued to rise, so too has the potential for claims to emerge for occupational voice loss.
The potential for employees to sustain occupational voice loss has been documented as far back as autumn 2004, when the Trades Union Congress included an article in their publication, ‘Hazards’. In this, the TUC drew attention to concerns raised by members of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists that increasing numbers of teachers were seeking help for voice problems which they attributed to their work.
Symptoms of vocal disorder, otherwise known as dysphonia, can include breathiness, hoarseness, fatigue as well as the need for a prolonged warm-up before speaking. Complete voice loss is one of the more severe symptoms that can occur in those afflicted by this illness. Structural abnormalities that could indicate the presence of voice loss in a clinical examination may appear in the form of vocal nodules, polyps or cysts.
Call centre employees are one type of staff that could be susceptible to this form of occupational illness. Other occupations which are at risk of developing voice disorders include sales staff, receptionists, advice workers, journalists, actors, barristers and preachers, though this list is by no means exhaustive.
A notable case that highlights the consequences of occupational voice loss can be seen through Mrs Joyce Walters’ experience from her job teaching schoolchildren ‘English to Speakers of Other Languages’ (ESOL). Through her role as a teacher, Mrs Walter had to frequently raise her voice in the classroom, hurting her throat. In 2006 a medical specialist discovered that her vocal chords had thickened, and further examinations indicated that she had bilateral vocal chord nodules.
Mrs Walters reported her condition to Management, but following an appeal the Management considered that “Vocal chord nodules are an occupational hazard for all teachers.” Frustrated by her employer’s response, Mrs Walters made a claim to the Employment Tribunal for disability discrimination as well as making a claim for personal injury. Following more than 3 years of legal proceedings, Mrs Walters secured a landmark victory, having both cases settled for £156,000. Speaking about her experience on the Hazard website, Mrs Walters stated that, “Obviously teachers and all professional voice users have to recognise that their voice is the tool of their trade and if it becomes damaged the consequences for their career, and future life, can be devastating.”
If an employee feels that their voice is being affected by their workplace, the employer could implement steps to reduce the risk of harm. Measures, such as reducing the length of voice based work hours a day or introducing regular breaks could help to lower the level of harm. Other options, such as providing a workplace which is at a comfortable temperature and humidity and which has a lower background noise, could also be considered.
Although there is no specific legislation for occupational voice loss, claims could be brought under provisions that are present in a number of Work Regulations. Cases could also use previous court judgments as a basis for a claim. The date of knowledge (the moment when a person notices their symptoms and attributes this to work) for occupational voice loss has not yet been decided by the courts, so this could be a potential point of dispute if any claims are heard in court.
Following a report into vocal disorders by The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) in 2006, their investigations revealed that those resulting from occupational factors do not display unique clinical features which can be differentiated from those occurring from other factors. Despite this, as occupations requiring extensive use of the voice continue to increase, claims for occupational voice loss might in the future become a more acknowledged form of occupational illness within the workplace.