“The current U.S. regulation for occupational noise exposure was promulgated over 20 years ago, and was based in large part on research conducted in the 1960s,” ISEA President Dan Shipp told OSHA in a Jan. 26 letter. He noted that significant research findings in the intervening 40-plus years indicate that OSHA’s existing noise-control regulations are “insufficient to protect workers from the effects of workplace noise.”
OSHA’s current PEL for workplace noise, found in 29 CFR 1910.95, is 90 decibels (dBA), meaning that employers must require the use of hearing protection equipment if noise exposures exceed 90 dBA (or if noise exposures equal or exceed an 8-hour time-weighted average of 85 dBA for any employee who has not yet had a baseline audiogram or who has experienced a standard threshold shift in their hearing). The standard also requires employers to have hearing conservation programs in all workplaces where noise levels equal or exceed 85 dBA as an 8-hour time-weighted average.
ISEA asked OSHA to reduce the PEL to 85 dBA as an 8-hour time-weighted average. Shipp pointed out that, since OSHA's existing noise exposure rule was promulgated in 1974, research has shown that workers exposed at between 85 and 90 dBA face significant risk of hearing loss.
ISEA – which represents manufacturers of safety equipment, including hearing protection – commissioned a review of current workplace noise conditions by Dr. Alice Suter of Ashland, Ore. Suter concluded that despite current OSHA regulations, “it is clear that a great many American workers are still losing their hearing. … [And] in spite of the widespread use of hearing protection devices, many of today’s hearing conservation programs are inadequate, with deficiencies in audiometric testing and training, as well as in other program areas, especially in small and mid-sized companies.”
ISEA: Exchange Rate Also Should Be Lowered
ISEA also asked OSHA to reduce the exchange rate from 5 to 3 dBA. This number represents the increase in noise exposure that can be permitted if the duration of the exposure is halved.
A 3-dBA exchange rate would be consistent with current research findings and requirements in most of the world, Shipp noted.
“The United States is one of two countries still employing the 90-dBA PEL, and one of three using the 5-dBA exchange rate,” Shipp wrote. “It is clear that workers in nearly all of the rest of the world receive protection from noise greater than that offered by U.S. regulation, and we believe that it is time that U.S. workers be afforded the same degree of protection.”
Since ISEA delivered its petition to OSHA, the association has asked more than 20 other hearing conservation stakeholders – including the American Industrial Hygiene Association and National Hearing Conservation Association – to write OSHA in support of the petition.