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Hazards issue 56, July-September 1996
Occupational voice loss is now an official work disease
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The UK government has recognised occupational voice loss as an injury qualifying for industrial injuries benefit in teachers and other workers who have to speak up to earn a living.

Dangerous talk
Hazards issue 56, July-September 1996



When Anne Long lost her voice again, she assumed it was just one more bout of laryngitis, a problem she had suffered throughout her career as a primary school teacher. This time it was different. Doctors warned her she risked becoming permanently mute if she continued constantly raising her voice over the cacophony of an over-sized class.

After six months off work to allow her voice to recuperate, she returned to teaching, taking small groups of pupils instead. But by her own admission she couldn't have carried on for long; the strain on her voice was too great, and she was having to take frequent five minute breaks to let her voice rest. It was only her promotion to Headteacher that enabled her to avoid early retirement.

Though she managed to save her career, the damage to her voice is permanent; it will never regain its former strength and character.

Voice loss is becoming an increasingly common reason among teachers for teachers to retire early on health grounds.

This year a DSS medical appeals tribunal awarded Midlands NUT member Mrs Clowry eight years backdated industrial injury benefit. She took early retirement in 1988 after developing nodules on her vocal chords.The reason she developed the nodules, she believes, was class size - having to raise her voice to be heard over the noise of a class of 44 pupils.

Teaching is recognised by the British Voice Association as a profession at serious risk from laryngitis, loss of voice and throat nodules. Recent research by Roz Comins, voice care project director at the association, found that 34 per cent of patients receiving treatment from voice clinics were teachers.

Comins is lobbying for courses on voice care at all teacher training institutions. "The voice is as important for teachers as it is for actors and singers, but 90 per cent of teachers who come to us have had no help whatsoever in looking after the prime tool of their profession, their voice."

Other professions have experienced problems. Jacqui O'Neill, health and safety officer for the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union (BIFU - now Unifi ) told Hazards: "BIFU is becoming increasingly concerned at the problems of voice strain and voice loss which is affecting many of our members, particularly in the (telephone) call centres."

BIFU is pursuing a common law industrial injury claim on behalf of one member whose voice packed up. A bank cashier, the woman has worked for several years in a very busy branch in a very busy street. She had to shout to make herself heard over the background noise, a problem made worse because there was a thick security screen - with no amplification - between herself and the customers. This led to her developing hyperkinetic dysphonia, a permanent injury to the voice caused by shouting. She has been on long term sick leave ever since, and her future employment with the bank is uncertain.

The union reports a high incidence of throat infections and voice strain among its members working in telephone banking. They work under "power dialling" systems, which means there are no gaps between the calls they take and they have no control over the number of calls they receive.

Staff are monitored by management, who listen-in to the conversations. Many workers say the feel under pressure to continue taking calls when they have sore throats because of their fears about job security. Typically, the turnover rate for staff in these "call centres" is over 20 per cent due to "telephone burn-out," where the stress of constant performance monitoring is compounded by voice strain and sore throats.

But it is not just talking too much or too loudly that leads to a lost voice. A road worker exposed to bituminous chemicals lost his voice for over a year, and now could lose his voice box and even his life after developing cancer of the larynx.

And a man exposed to fumes and who is now suffering from chronic throat inflammation, difficulty swallowing and voice loss is currently pursuing a common law compensation. His problems started months ago when he inhaled exhaust fumes while standing at the trade counter of a local builder's merchants.

Banking union BIFU is pushing for a preventive approach using risk assessment and the DSE regulations to insist on regular breaks. The union is encouraging workers to immediately report symptoms of voice strain, if possible recording them in the accident book. Negotiating guidelines are being drawn up so that the union can start to get agreements in place.


Speak up! Improve your prospects of surviving a hard day's talking.

• Negotiate an agreement for set maximum hours of voice-based work per day
• Ensure your employer reduces the levels of background noise so you do not have to raise your voice to be heard.

• Take regular rest breaks and drink plenty of fresh water to lubricate your throat (caffeine and alcohol are drying agents).

• Negotiate working patterns which reduce stress levels - the Approved Code of Practice to the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations requires that employers "adapt work to the individual" including modifying working methods and designing out "monotonous work and work at a pre-determined rate".

• Ensure your employer provides a working environment which is at a comfortable temperature and humidity (Workplace Health, Safety and Welfare Regulations 1992).

• Ensure your employer has controlled dust and chemicals properly, as they can dry and inflame the mucous membranes of the vocal tract.




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