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Phone Workers Make "Acoustic Shock" Claims
February 12, 2001

Trade union lawyers said they were preparing dozens of legal claims on behalf of call centre workers who say they have suffered health problems as a result of working with telephone headsets.

The Communication Workers Union is handling claims on behalf of 83 workers who say they have suffered "acoustic shock" -- described by the union as the "industrial injury of the 21st century".

"They are all headset workers, and they have all experienced, while working with headsets, a sudden loud, piercing noise," lawyer Adrian Fawden, who is handling the case, told Reuters.

"The results vary depending on the severity, from someone just going 'ouch!' and taking off the headset at one end to people having to take medical retirement, suffering hearing loss and dizziness, at the other."

Fawden, of London law firm Simpson Millar, said he began handling "acoustic shock" cases in the early 1990s, reaching settlements worth approximately 250,000 pounds in total for more than 30 people.

The 83 cases he is currently handling are mostly against British Telecommunications, he said, and so far eight claims have been issued as test cases.

Fawden said the causes of "acoustic shock", the medical evidence for which is disputed by some employers, were unclear.

But he said some of the sudden, loud noises reported may have been caused by automatic fire alarms, fax machines and even malicious callers sounding personal alarms.

A BT spokesman said many of the cases of alleged "acoustic shock" dated back a number of years.

"BT is aware that this problem can occur, we would never say it doesn't happen and there are still occasional cases," he said.

"We work very closely with the unions and scientific bodies across the board, and we work very hard to ensure we meet or exceed national and international standards of equipment."

The Trades Union Congress on Monday published a report urging call centre bosses to improve pay and work practices, saying the fast-growing industry needed to shed a sweatshop image.

The TUC said centre workers, who make up more than two percent of Britain's workforce, earned 8,000 pounds less than the average which it said stood at 21,800 pounds. They also suffered unacceptable conditions.

In its report titled "It's your call", the TUC said standards in some call centres were improving but others still had some way to go.

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