OSHA: Employers must reduce noise hazards

Agency says PPE isn't enough

Ear plugs aren't protection enough from high levels of noise at work. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration wants employers to rely more on eliminating or mitigating a noise hazard than on using personal protective equipment.

In a proposed new interpretation of the Occupational Noise Protection standard, OSHA would change the meaning of what's "feasible." Employers can't choose ear protection rather than other methods of controlling the noise hazard simply because personal protective equipment is less expensive, says OSHA.

"Although OSHA has not changed its interpretation of the standard, its enforcement policy since 1983 has allowed employers to rely on a hearing conservation program based on PPE if such a program reduces noise exposures to acceptable levels and is less costly than administrative and engineering controls," the agency said in a Federal Register notice. The interpretation applied to noise less than 100 decibels. (edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/2010-26135.htm)

Instead, OSHA would consider "feasible" to mean "capable of being done" or "achievable" and would consider administrative or engineering controls to be economically feasible "if they will not threaten the employer's ability to remain in business or if the threat to viability results from the employer's having failed to keep up with the industry safety and health standards."

Under the new interpretation, employers would rely on PPE only if the administrative and engineering controls weren't completely effective in reducing the noise hazard.

"There is sufficient evidence that hearing protection alone cannot prevent workers from suffering preventable hearing loss," Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels, MD, said in a statement. "Easily applied administrative or engineering controls can and must be used to protect workers. There are plenty of employers out there who play by the rules and want to do the right thing, and we're hopeful we can work with them to craft a policy that's good for all."

This proposed interpretation "represents a major change in how OSHA enforces its noise standard," says Brad Hammock, Esq., workplace safety compliance practice group leader at Jackson Lewis LLP in the Washington DC region office. "My opinion has been that stakeholders really need to comment on this to provide as much information as possible."

OSHA extended the comment period to March 21. Comments may be submitted to www.regulations.gov or to the OSHA Docket Office, Docket No. OSHA-2010-0032, U.S. Department of Labor, Room N-2625, 200 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20210, 202-693-1648 (fax).