NHCA Addresses “Misperceptions” Regarding OSHA’s Interpretation of Noise Control Enforcement Change

The National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) reiterated its support for OSHA’s announced change in workplace noise control enforcement and seeks to address a number of misperceptions related to this interpretation.

According to NHCA, employers and industry groups have raised concerns surrounding the announced changes, but these concerns are rooted in misunderstandings. NHCA, meanwhile, endorses OSHA’s decision to revise the current enforcement policy concerning noise controls.

The original policy – established over 25 years ago in the absence of rulemaking or public input – does not require employers to implement feasible engineering and administrative noise controls until workers’ 8-hour average exposures reach 100 dBA or greater, which is 10 times more intense than the current Permissible Exposure Limit of 90 dBA. This policy has made noise the only regulated health hazard in which OSHA has failed to acknowledge the primacy of engineering controls, and has resulted in a substantial increase in risk of hearing loss for some American workers, NHCA said.

The alternative exposure reduction method currently allowed by OSHA for 8-hour average exposures between 90 and 100 dBA is the use of earplugs or earmuffs, which have been demonstrated to provide insufficient protection for many workers, if they are used at all.

Policy Correction and Misperceptions

NHCA views OSHA’s proposed change as a policy correction. That is, it does not represent the creation of a new regulation or a new policy. Rather, it represents a return to the original intent of OSHA’s noise regulation, which is to institute engineering or administrative controls for employees with 8-hour average exposures over 90 dBA. OSHA’s proposed definition of the word feasible (i.e., "capable of being done") will make requirements for controls consistent with OSHA’s other health regulations.

Opponents of this policy correction have raised a number of objections, which NHCA addresses below:

Misperception: The change proposed by OSHA is an attempt to alter an exposure limit outside of the rulemaking process. This proposed change, NHCA stressed, simply would allow OSHA to enforce the original language and intent of the noise regulation.

“It’s unfortunate that there’s such an outcry about this proposed change now,” said Rick Neitzel, Ph.D., CIH, immediate past president of NHCA. “The real outcry should have happened 26 years ago when OSHA first established a noise control enforcement policy that was legally questionable and that effectively gutted what would otherwise have been an important occupational health protection for American workers.”

Misperception: All employers whose facilities have any areas with noise levels over 90 dBA will have to implement noise controls. The need for noise controls is determined by 8-hour average exposures over 90 dBA, not noise levels over 90 dBA. This means that far fewer workers will be subject to the control requirements than if only noise levels were measured. Workplaces can have areas with noise levels over 90 dBA – even levels up to 115 dBA, depending on the length of workers’ exposures – and still be in compliance with OSHA’s proposed policy correction. The noise control requirement is only triggered when workers have 8-hour average exposures over 90 dBA.

Misperception: The change proposed by OSHA will have a broad and substantial economic impact that will eliminate jobs and reduce competitiveness. OSHA estimated that in 1981, about 19 percent of U.S. manufacturing workers had 8-hour average exposures above 90 dBA. This percentage undoubtedly is lower today because of outsourcing, automation and other factors. Professionals in industrial hygiene and noise control engineering now estimate that about 10 percent of workers enrolled in hearing conservation programs are exposed to 8-hour average exposures greater than 90 dBA. These are the workers to which the new policy applies. The majority of U.S. workplaces will not be affected by the proposed policy correction, though there are some industries with a higher percentage of over-exposed workers.

“Those companies that are affected by the proposed change are probably experiencing ongoing problems with noise-induced hearing loss, and will benefit in the long run from exposure reduction through noise controls,” said Neitzel. In addition, noise controls, which often are thought to be difficult to develop and complex to implement, also can be an inexpensive and expedient means of achieving compliance.

Misperception: The change in policy isn’t needed because hearing conservation programs are working and hearing protectors are effective. Studies have shown that workers continue to lose their hearing in spite of the presence of hearing conservation programs. This is because many of these programs rely on workers’ use of hearing protectors rather than noise controls. Hearing protectors are often are resisted by workers, commonly are worn for insufficient durations and fail to provide the expected noise reduction.

OSHA published this proposed change in the Oct. 19 Federal Register and recently extended the comment period to March 21, 2011.

NHCA’s mission is to prevent hearing loss due to noise and other environmental factors in all sectors of society. For more information, visit http://www.hearingconservation.org.

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