OSHA Shifts on Noise Exposure Standards
It is reversing the enforcement policy it has used since 1983, which allows most employers to use PPE and a hearing conservation program rather than engineering and administrative controls.
A "proposed interpretation" document published in Tuesday's Federal Register may be an enforcement milestone for OSHA because it reverses the policy it has used for 27 years in general industry and construction cases involving workers' exposure to noise. Since 1983, the agency has not cited employers who used PPE and a hearing conservation program rather than engineering and administrative controls, unless the noise is so high that it borders on 100 dBA when the most effective hearing protectors are used or the controls cost less than an effective hearing conservation program would cost. In practice, controls are almost always more expensive, so citations for failure to use them are rare. But they apparently will increase soon.
Signed by OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels, the document explains that OSHA proposes now to interpret 29 CFR 1910.95(b)(1) and 1926.52(b) as they are written -- and in accordance with the hierarchy of controls, which begins with engineering and administrative controls to reduce or eliminate exposures.
These sections of the two noise standards are almost identical. They say, "When employees are subjected to sound exceeding those listed [in tables within the standard], feasible administrative or engineering controls shall be utilized. If such controls fail to reduce sound levels within the levels [of the tables], personal protective equipment . . . shall be provided and used to reduce sound levels within the levels of the table."
The document says OSHA proposes to interpret "feasible" in the standards as meaning the same thing as it does in section 6(b)(5) of the OSH Act: "capable of being done" or "achievable." The agency further explained that it proposes to consider administrative or engineering controls 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 industry safety and health standards."
The agency said it welcomes comments (www.regulations.gov, Docket No. OSHA-2010-0032) by Dec. 20 from interested parties on the proposed interpretation.