Call centre industry groups raise health fears

Health concerns are mounting within the call centre industry following revelations by an industry union and the announcement of a complete review of the industry's workplace practices by the Australian Teleservices Association (ATA).

The ATA said it will begin a review immediately of workplace practices following an increasing occurrence of 'audioshock'.

The Australian Services Union (ASU) has also announced it is planning a test case.

Colin Lynch, the national call centre coordinator for the ASU, said: "The test case is still in its early stages, as we still need a couple of bits of information to link the type of work done to the industry."

"Currently our lawyers are looking at the cases to date. The case is really like RSI; we just need to get the medical experts to link the cause with the outcome."

The injury, which has not been recognised by medical experts, affects call centre workers when they are subject to sudden loud noises, such as feedback, fax machines or mobile phones, through their headsets.

Lynch said call centre workers say the loud piercing noises have left some workers temporarily deaf, with persistence symptoms such as headaches, earaches, dizziness, nausea and a sensitivity to loud noise.

He said some workers have been forced to give up their job as a consequence of the injury.

"I believe employers are liable, but I am not convinced there is a conspiracy. I'm not sure the technology is causing the problem, but I believe the management of call centres and pressures of working at a call centre are to blame."

Lynch said the union would be introducing a pilot program in Western Australia in four to five weeks to research the condition by talking with people that have been affected.

He said the union was concentrating on a national register of workers who have been affected by the condition, and on getting treatment for them.

"Many workers have contacted us to participate in the research. At the moment we know of about 240 cases, but I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg."

As reported on BBC News Online (February 12 2001), phone company BT has already paid £90,000 to one worker.

In a report of April 20, 1998, the UK site revealed that "since the late 1980s, hundreds of employees at BT exchanges across Britain have reported receiving what are known as acoustic shocks."

"More than 50 staff … are suing the company for negligence … BT is admitting liability in the first 22 cases."

When questioned about compensation for workers, Lynch replied that he would have "no idea how much this would be" and that the union was currently working with medical experts, trying to reduce the stress in call centre workplaces and calling for the introduction of more breaks for workers.

Lynch said about 88 per cent of call centre employees work in a stressful environment and that the problem had become more prominent since 1995 when call centre numbers really expanded.

"Workers spend all day on the phone and a certain number of muscles in the ear are really exercised; this combined with a stressful environment makes the muscles react. There is no warning of the condition, as it is a case of the muscles overreacting in the ear. The worst case scenario would be a rupture to the eardrum."

Lynch added that 13 to 20 per cent of all workers suffer some sort of ear pain and most doctors diagnose the condition as a middle ear infection.

"If a call centre worker has this problem and is treated with antibiotics and told to stay away from the phone for a period of time, it just settles the problem but doesn't treat it."

Major call centre operators Telstra and AMP were unable for comment on the issue by deadline.

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