Call-centre staff warned of ‘acoustic shock’

Thousands of New Zealand call-centre workers are potentially at risk from a new injury sweeping across the U.K. call center industry, “acoustic shock”.

New Zealand firms are being warned to guard against it striking here, or else face potential court action.

BBC Online says “hundreds of legal claims” are being prepared by U.K. trade unions concerning what the unions call “the industrial injury of the 21st century”. Phone company British Telecommunications Plc has already paid US$130,000 to one worker, it says.

The Australian union Web site Workers Online last week also highlighted “acoustic shock” in an article called “New Economy Spawns New Plagues”.

The injury affects call centre workers, when they are subject to sudden loud noises through headsets. This, workers say, can cause hearing loss, memory loss and depression.

In New Zealand, Telecom New Zealand Ltd., Clear Communications Ltd. and call center operators Scitel report no cases of “acoustic shock” at their centers. They say they have not heard of any such cases here and neither have call centre unions EPMU and Finsec.

However, EPMU national secretary Andrew Little warns the injury is “a serious risk for call center operators”.

Many call centre staff, he says, are under pressure to keep call queues down, so they may not receive sufficient breaks. He warns employers to ensure work practices are safe and that equipment is adequate and working properly.

“In any injury sustained at work you are going to see if there is a liability attached to the employer. If there are improvements that could be made that aren’t particularly costly, then the employer is potentially liable,” says Little.

Finsec general secretary Don Farr says “acoustic shock” appears not to be a problem in call centers where union agreements are in place or being made. But in non-union centers with “appalling conditions and primitive equipment” it is “very likely” to be.

“Employers should be aware that injury of this sort is a blatant breach of the Health and Safety in Employment Act and if they expose workers to this sort of harm they risk prosecution,” he says.

Bill Lyons of, a market research firm for the call center and CRM market that serves 10 countries, including New Zealand, says he was not aware of any court action involving Australasian call centers and “acoustic shock.”

However, he says the Australian Council of Trade unions has established a call center hotline looking at this and other issues as it steps up its presence in the industry.

Meanwhile, the New South Wales Labor Council is calling on the Federal Australian Government to recognize noise-related injuries so victims can gain compensation.

Former call centre worker and victim Sandra Cabot told Workers Online she suffered a “spike” of high-pitched noise, which sent her deaf. Her doctors say she has permanent hearing damage and advised a career change, blaming the equipment she used. She continues to suffer symptoms such as severe headaches, soreness in her ears and disorientation.

“Every day I would be in agony,” Cabot says.