If awareness is a powerful ally of workplace safety, distractions are its enemy— including the use of headphones to listen to music on dangerous job sites like construction projects, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
“Listening to music may produce a safety hazard by masking environmental sounds that need to be heard, especially on active construction sites where attention to moving equipment, heavy machinery, vehicle traffic and safety warning signals may be compromised,” the agency declared.
OSHA’s position on the question was contained in a letter of interpretation that it issued last fall in response to an employer’s query about its employees listening to music this way on a construction site.
Although there is no specific OSHA regulation that prohibits the use of headphones on a construction site or any other workplace, the agency has set permissible noise exposure limits and requires employers to protect employees subject to sound levels exceeding these limits.
OSHA’s Hearing Protection standard requires that ear protective devices be provided by the employer and used wherever necessary to reduce noise levels below acceptable limits set out by the agency in Table D-2 of its regulations. These standards for acceptable exposure limits sound range from eight hours a day for 90 decibels to a quarter hour or less per day for 115 decibels.
“A portable music player is not a substitute for hearing protection,” OSHA explains.
The reason for not allowing employees to listen to music while working should be crystal clear, OSHA says. “Listening to music may produce a safety hazard by masking environmental sounds that need to be heard, especially on active construction sites where attention to moving equipment, heavy machinery, vehicle traffic and safety warning signals may be compromised.”
However, OSHA admitted that it has no regulations that specifically ban the use of headphones. As a result, the use of headphones by workers on a construction site may be permissible at the discretion of management, unless such use creates or augments other hazards apart from noise.
But this may not be such a good idea, the agency explains, pointing out that struck-by hazards are one of the four leading causes of death in construction. “It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that employees are not exposed to struck-by hazards while performing their work,” it stresses.
Even in the absence of a specific regulation regarding use of headphones, employers still could face enforcement actions if OSHA finds that they have violated the General Duties Clause, which requires all employers to maintain safe workplaces.
“The key takeaway from the letter is that employers must address employee use of headphones to listen to music on the worksite, even if there is not a specific OSHA standard prohibiting it,” states attorney Trever L. Neuroth of the law firm of Jackson Lewis PC. “Employers should evaluate their worksites and determine whether a policy prohibiting listening to music on the job is appropriate.”
It is not at all unusual for contractors to not allow their workers to listen to the radio or music on the job, much less with headphones or earbuds, says David E. Dubberly, an attorney with the law firm of Nexsen Pruet. “It is important for workers to be able to hear equipment starting and stopping, warnings, alarms, and verbal directions from co-workers and supervisors. The same concerns apply in manufacturing environments.”
The same employer who queried OSHA about headphone use also noted that some of the headphones are equipped with a built-in volume limiter and are marked as “OSHA approved” for use in the workplace.
Although some manufacturers may claim that their products are “OSHA approved” or “100% OSHA compliant,” the agency stressed that OSHA “does not register, certify, approve, or otherwise endorse commercial or private sector entities, products or services. Therefore, any such claims by a manufacturer are misleading.”