40-Year Firefighter Wins Hearing Loss Claim

On July 8, 2006, Joseph Seaman retired after having worked as a City of Philadelphia firefighter for 40 years. More than a year later, he filed a claim petition, alleging that he had sustained binaural hearing loss as a result of many years of exposure to hazardous noise at work.

At the hearing on his claim, Seaman testified that his work as a firefighter had exposed him to loud noise on a daily basis. He explained that the daily equipment check exposed him to the noise of engines, generators, public address and radio systems. Responding to an emergency call involved the ringing of bells at the fire station, followed by the sirens of the truck and the use of an air horn to clear traffic. Fighting fires exposed Seaman to alarm systems, smoke detectors, saws, radios, explosions, and building collapses.

In the 1990s, the City provided Seaman with ear plugs, but Seaman elected not to wear them, explaining that they were ineffective and impeded his ability to hear well enough to perform his job. Seaman’s hearing problem manifested itself gradually. Eventually it became difficult for him to hear in crowded environments; to listen to the television without turning up the volume very loud; or to engage in conversations.

Seaman’s doctor testified that Seaman suffered from a binaural hearing impairment of 47.5 percent, which the doctor found to be sensorineural, a type of hearing loss caused by exposure of the inner ear to noise. The doctor opined that Seaman’s sensorineural hearing loss was directly related to his employment as a firefighter, noting that Seaman’s hearing loss was “extremely atypical” for someone of Seaman’s age.

When Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Board upheld Seaman’s claim, the City challenged the decision in court, arguing that Seaman did not provide sufficient proof that his hearing loss was caused by the job. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court rejected the City’s appeal.

The City argued that Seaman’s doctor’s opinion was “equivocal,” and that the Board should have followed the testimony of the City’s medical expert, who concluded that the hearing loss was not caused by occupational noise exposure. The City contended that Seaman’s doctor’s opinion was equivocal because he did not explain how Seaman’s hearing loss could manifest itself so many months after retirement.

The Court found that the City “misses the point. Seaman did not assert that his hearing loss first manifested itself a year after he retired. Rather, Seaman did not have his hearing loss diagnosed until after he retired when, for the first time, he underwent an audiogram. The law does not require Seaman to produce evidence that his hearing loss was greater than ten percent at the time of retirement. Rather, it requires Seaman to show that he has permanent hearing loss greater than ten percent; that the hearing loss is work-related; and that an application for compensation be filed within three years of retirement. Seaman satisfied these standards. His doctor’s testimony clearly and unambiguously established the work-related cause of Seaman’s hearing loss.”

City of Philadelphia v. W.C.A.B. (Seaman), 2010 WL 4368455 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010).

This article appears in the January 2011 issue