Dangerous talk

Millions of workers, from teachers to telephonists to trade unionists, rely on
their voices to do their jobs. But overwork your voice - shouting over the
racket of a noisy class or taking call after call after call on the switchboard
- and that might be the last you hear of it. Occupational voice loss is now an
official workplace disease.

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.

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

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

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

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.

Further Information

AplusA-online.de - Source: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work