Call Center Noise Hazards Place Operators at Risk

Many employers are unaware of the hazard of acoustic shock, despite the fact that up to 300,000 victims have been paid over $15 million worldwide.

Acoustic shock is a sudden spike of noise; a hazard faced by 1 million call center operators. It can lead to physical problems such as tinnitus, and emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression.

Research by the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showed 30 percent of call center employees interviewed claimed symptoms of acoustic shock. Potentially this suggests that 300,000 UK operators may be acoustic shock victims.

"Call center operators are becoming the modern victims of noise at work. In a study we conducted, 39 percent of operators were concerned that their hearing was damaged as a result of noise exposure at work and 30 percent said that work tasks left them with tinnitus," said Keith Broughton, former principal specialist inspector for Noise and Vibration, HSE. He noted that the call center workers said they were given little information about noise at work, and were told nothing about acoustic shock.

In fall 2000, a 34-year-old woman, exposed to acoustic shock several months before, complained of tinnitus, sleep disturbance and an increase in a pre-existing migraine condition. In summer 2001, she was absent from work with persistent tinnitus and anxiety relating to working at a call center. By spring 2002, her anxiety had reduced with medication and she had returned to work, though not on the phones, but she continued to complain of persistent, intrusive tinnitus. In early summer 2004, she continued to have tinnitus, disrupted sleep and ongoing problems with migraines. Litigation against her employer is now in progress.

"The health of operators has been at risk for far too long and there is a great misunderstanding between what constitutes acoustic shock as opposed to trauma, and to what extent employers are required by law to mitigate against this risk," said Marcus Quilter, chairman of the UK's Call Centre Management Association (CCMA).

For more information about acoustic shock, log onto the HSE Web site at for guidelines about call center working practices.

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