The Hidden Risks of OSHA's Noise Standard

The federal government will soon know how many workers are losing their hearing. Some experts worry that U.S. companies are not prepared for what could follow.

by James L. Nash

For most employers, OSHA's occupational noise exposure standard means establishing effective hearing conservation and medical surveillance programs, but experts say that was not the original intention of the rule.

OSHA enforcement policy, some critics charge, has shifted the original emphasis of the standard (1910.95) away from engineering controls that would reduce noise levels, to making sure workers wear hearing protection devices. Could OSHA shift back to its original focus on engineering solutions?

There is evidence that suggests too many workers are not wearing hearing protectors properly, particularly in the construction industry. The result, according to some informed observers, raises concerns for both workers and employers.

Mind-Expanding Hearing Loss

"By age 25, the average carpenter has 50-year-old ears," says Mark Stephenson, Ph.D., a bioacoustics researcher at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). "All the studies show it's one of the top three occupational illnesses in the U.S. It's so common that in construction, people think it's normal."

The most common reason hearing loss is continuing even with hearing protection programs is that the protective devices are not worn, or not worn properly, according to Doug Kalinowski, director of the bureau of safety and regulation at Michigan's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA).

"We continue to see significant hearing loss even in hearing protection programs," asserts Dr. Kenneth Rosenman, professor of medicine at Michigan State University.

Not long ago, Rosenman received a jolt that makes him believe the problem is far worse than he feared. Until recently, he paid little attention to workers reporting temporary standard threshold shifts (STS) because he assumed they were being monitored in effective hearing protection programs (for the definition of STS, see sidebar on p. 32). Then, Rosenman began to look at the baseline audiograms of people with temporary shifts.

"It turns out these people who are losing their hearing have a baseline that is already degraded," he explains. "This expands my mind about the amount of hearing loss going on in hearing protection programs."

There are a number of reasons why workers do not wear hearing protection, or wear it properly. Poor education, awareness and training are common problems, as is the failure of the employer to provide a sufficient variety of protective devices. If a worker can't find a device that fits, it won't be comfortable and it won't be worn.

Protecting workers who already have hearing loss can be especially challenging, according to Laura R. Ray, associate professor at the Thayer School of Engineering of Dartmouth College. "In occupational environments, you do need to hear certain things, such as warning bells or your co-workers. Many people already have hearing loss, so these devices makes the problem worse."

Fortunately, there are some new products on the market that can increase the chances workers will use hearing protectors and that will not block out sounds they need to hear (see sidebar on page 28).

Given how well the problem is understood, some occupational health experts express frustration at the persistence of hearing loss, more than three decades after OSHA issued its standard.

Dr. Michael Metz, director of audiology for Ear Professionals International Corp., a consulting firm headquartered in Industry, Calif., puts it this way: "We know what causes hearing loss, what controls to use, and how to fix noise, but what we don't know is how to make anybody in industry or government give a darn."

Government and industry may soon have some good reasons to "give a darn."

Risks for Employers

Rampant hearing loss is confronting companies with at least two risks. First, workers are losing their hearing, and many are suing their employers. Second, employers may have grown too complacent about the way OSHA interprets and enforces 1910.95.

"Hearing protection has come to be considered an appropriate way to protect your employees, but that's not the way the standard was written," says Dan Belcher, president of Noise Suppression Technologies Inc. based in Columbus, Ohio. Originally, the standard was intended to compel employers to reduce noise levels. "We're in this situation because many employers aren't well-educated about the standard, and OSHA is not enforcing it."

The standard states that when employees are exposed to noise that exceeds 90 dB TWA (time-weighted average for an eight-hour period), "feasible administrative or engineering controls shall be utilized." If such controls fail to bring noise down to the permissible exposure level, "personal protective equipment shall be provided and used to reduce sound levels."

The preamble to the hearing conservation amendment to 1910.95, published in the Federal Register Jan. 16, 1981, states: "The agency continues to support the policy, reflected in the existing standard and not affected by this amendment, that engineering control of noise is preferable to the use of personal protective devices."

But because of the difficulty of determining when engineering controls are "feasible," since the 1980's in most cases OSHA has in fact focused on personal protective equipment.

"I have seen no evidence that OSHA is motivating companies to do noise engineering controls," says Robert Anderson, principal with James, Anderson, and Associates, a consulting firm specializing in noise control management that is based in Okemus, Mich.

It is the fear of legal liability, rather than an OSHA citation, that leads most companies to seek engineering solutions to their noise problems.

"Our business is not driven by OSHA," declares Kris Kollevoll, president of BRD Noise and Vibration Control, a company that abates noise for manufacturers and offers training for OSHA compliance officers. "OSHA checks you out for noise very rarely. They just don't have the manpower."

Instead, says Kollevoll, concerns about general liability issues are the most important factors that lead employers to see the value of engineered solutions.

"Compliance with OSHA doesn't preclude hearing loss or liability for hearing loss," Kollevoll explains. "That's one of the misconceptions out there."

Labor union pressure is an additional reason manufacturers are seeking engineered solutions. "I've been in this business for 15 years, and workers are more educated now. They know loud noise will damage their ears. They either demand quieter machines, or us," says Belcher. He points to another liability pressure on employers: the threat that their insurance carriers will drop their coverage unless the noise level is abated.

Complacency about OSHA's noise standard reveals a second, subtler risk for employers, according to Anderson. "For so long, business has seen this as a medical standard. We have few resources for engineering controls," he says. "If a new administration were to change its enforcement policy, companies would be caught flat-footed, because they don't know how to evaluate engineering solutions."

Will OSHA Revise the Noise Standard?

Bill Ament works in the Washington, D.C. office of Organization Resource Counselors Inc., a consulting company that specializes in workplace safety. "Whether OSHA revises this standard, I think, is an open question, and that's the reason we're concerned," he says.

Ament points out a number of reasons that changes to OSHA's noise standard are possible:

  • NIOSH's Criteria for a Recommended Standard document calls for numerous changes to OSHA's rule, including a recommended noise exposure that is 85 dB TWA;
  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration has a new noise standard;
  • OSHA has published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking on hearing protection for construction workers.

"One issue OSHA raised on construction noise is whether to follow the NIOSH criteria document," comments Ament. "We argued that to avoid confusion, any changes should apply to general industry as well." ORC has OSHA's ear when it comes to hearing protection: the agency adopted ORC's proposal on the new criteria for recording standard threshold shifts (STS).

"Our Policy Got Bent"

One reason that OSHA may want to revisit the noise standard is that ever since a 1982 court case (Donovan v. Castle Foods and the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission), the agency has had to overcome more hurdles in compelling companies to institute engineering controls.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth District held that the implementation of engineering and/or administrative controls could not be required under the standard without comparing the relative costs and effectiveness of these abatement methods with personal protective equipment.

"That's where our policy got bent," comments an OSHA official.

Anderson says there are now three tests that are used to determine if engineering controls are feasible:

  • Technical feasibility, that is, whether the controls are commercially available;
  • Economic feasibility;
  • Benefit for the worker, which usually means a reduction of at least 5 dB.

The first and third rules pose no special problems, according to Anderson. "But the second test is the most difficult to pinpoint " he explains. "Usually it comes down to whether the company believes it should spend that money for the benefit."

OSHA officials say they do cite companies for failing to use noise-reducing engineering controls, particularly when the noise levels exceed 100 dB. But they also concede it can be a difficult and time-consuming standard to enforce: the agency must monitor sound levels for six to eight hours. OSHA must also ensure the employer, who is aware of the monitoring, does not alter work practices to reduce the noise levels.

John Miles, OSHA's region six administrator, maintains that in his region general industry does a good job complying with the noise standard. "They first try to engineer it out, and we don't see many problems with hearing protection."

Miles adds, however, that "when you get to construction, it's a different deal." It's more difficult to install engineering controls, he says, and harder to induce workers to wear protective equipment.

"In general, the enforcement of the engineering controls provision has been severely hampered," counters Anderson. "The agency has lost a lot of expertise in noise control engineering."

What Is an Effective Program?

The most powerful reason for OSHA to re-examine its noise standard may be that too many workers in hearing protection programs are losing their hearing. OSHA's noise standard permits hearing conservation programs provided they are as effective as engineering controls. There is evidence that current OSHA policy is permitting hearing protection programs that are not as effective as engineered solutions. As a result, a new administration could shift the way it enforces 1910.95.

"What is an effective hearing conservation program?" asks Anderson. "That's the first thing that must be answered."

He points out that under OSHA's definition, an effective hearing conservation program allows 5 percent of the work force to have an STS each year. But, says Anderson, this number is at least five times the annual STS rate of the engineered solution the standard requires.

To put the case in more personal terms, if 5 percent of the work force has an STS each year, after 20 years everyone has had one STS. According to Anderson's research, if engineering controls are used to bring noise levels down to 90 dB, as called for in 1910.95, then just 0.7 to 1 percent of the work force has an STS annually, and only 21 to 29 percent of the work force should have an STS over a 30-year period.

Moreover, the hearing loss OSHA allows officially may be a far cry from what is actually taking place on the shop floor.

Until now, it has been difficult to obtain reliable and comprehensive data on occupational hearing loss. It was not recorded separately on the OSHA log, and because hearing loss does not generally result in a lost workday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track it.

All this is about to change.

Beginning next year, employers will have to record every STS on the OSHA log. OSHA says by 2005, BLS will have good data on hearing loss. It will soon become clear how well a company's hearing conservation program is protecting the hearing of its workers.

"OSHA should get a gold star for this one," comments Stephenson. "It opens up a whole new way to monitor what's happening to the hearing health of American workers."

It may also open a whole new set of challenges for employers with hearing protection programs.

Sidebar: The New Wave of Hearing Protectors

"There has been nothing new in hearing protection for 20 years, and suddenly there's a whole lot that's new," says Lee Hager, hearing loss prevention consultant for Sonomax Hearing Health Care, headquartered in Montreal.

NIOSH's Mark Stephenson agrees. He's most excited about electronic earmuffs that can amplify outside noise so those with impaired hearing can communicate or hear warning bells. The devices are equipped with "smart circuits" that sense when noise reaches a certain level so that the external microphone is turned off.

"These products are ideal for hearing-impaired workers in construction environments, where noise levels vary and communication is important," comments Stephenson.

Although these hearing protectors have come down in cost, their primary disadvantage remains their price: approximately $200 per unit, according to Mike Cimino, marketing director for Peltor Communications of North America, a manufacturer of electronic and two-way communication headsets. Peltor is part of the Aearo Co., wiheadquartered in Indianapolis.

Cimino says Peltor also produces models with built-in FM radios that are very popular with workers, increasing the chances the units will be used. Often employees will share the cost with employers. A more expensive version has a two-way radio that allows for communication with any number of other workers.

All three items are being used in construction and industrial settings, according to Cimino. "Manufacturing employment is dropping, which means communication in the workplace is more critical than ever because there are fewer people on the job."

Hager explains that Sonomax developed a new technology of instantly delivered custom-fitted earplugs. "What we do is manufacture a silicone balloon, place it in the ear canal, and inflate it with silica," he says. It is then possible to do a quantitative fit test of the device, and adjust it to match the worker's noise exposure.

The advantage of this is it avoids the danger of over-protection, a frequent cause of workers not using personal protective equipment. Hager says this new product addresses two other frequent problems in hearing protection programs: traditional protectors may not be properly fitted to the employee, or correctly worn.

Elliott Berger, senior scientist of auditory research at Aearo, a rival company, believes the Sonomax product has application in some noise environments. "But the current measurements of the effectiveness of this new product are under optimum conditions, and they have no data on what happens over the two-year life expectancy of the product," he says.

Natural sound technology is another option for those with impaired hearing working in lower noise environments (up to 92 dB), according to Berger. These devices have "flat attenuation" characteristics, which means they reduce noise equally at all frequencies. Traditional hearing protectors reduce high frequencies more than low, and this poses a problem since communication and warning devices tend to be high-frequency sounds.

Sidebar: OSHA Revises STS Recording Criteria

A Standard Threshold Shift (STS) is defined as a10 dB shift in hearing acuity. In a change that took effect at the beginning of this year, OSHA now requires the recording of an STS that has resulted in a total 25 dB level of hearing loss above audiometric zero, averaged over the frequencies at 2000, 3000, and 400 Hz.

Starting Jan. 1, 2004, OSHA will require employers to record an STS on the OSHA log in a separate column dedicated to hearing loss. For the first time, the federal government will be in a position to know the full extent of occupational hearing loss.

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