The insurance industry, which is one of the biggest employers of call centre staff, could be inflicting thousands of claims on itself from what is called the industrial injury of the 21st century.

The condition, known as acoustic shock, occurs when sudden loud noises come through call centre employee's headsets.

Victims say it has left them with short-term memory loss and headaches and an inability to be anywhere near loud noises.

The condition was first recorded two years ago among BT directory enquiries employees.

BT has already paid out £90,000 in compensation to one employee and more than 80 other employees, who say they have suffered acoustic shock, have had cases prepared against the company.

These cases have been described by Adrian Forden, a solicitor representing some of the claimants, as “the tip of the iceberg” and not likely to be confined to BT employees.

Insurers say they have no record of the condition among their own employees, and an Association of British Insurers (ABI) spokesman said: “It certainly hasn't been brought to our attention by our members.”

News of the condition comes as the TUC published a report called “It's your call” looking into conditions in call centres.

Call centres employ more than 400,000 people – almost one in every 50 employees. It is predicted that there will be more than 665,000 full-time equivalent employees by 2008.

TUC general secretary John Monks, launching the report, said many call centres did not deserve the sweatshop image they have been tainted with. “But there are too many call centres exploiting their staff,” he said.

“That's why we are running this campaign – to make sure call handlers know their rights, and to raise the status of call centres by encouraging shoddy employers to improve.”

The report found that as well as acoustic shock, call centre employees reported being monitored over the length of time they spent going to the toilet, that some had to provide their own headsets and others had pay withheld during probationary periods.

As part of the “It's your call” campaign, the TUC is running a freephone hotline for disgruntled call centre workers on 0800 032 0033.

Complaints can also be emailed at