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OSHA's command-and-control approach to noise reduction

OSHA has announced that it's lowering the boom on workplace noise, requiring employers to implement administrative or engineering controls if they can afford them. It will interpret "feasible" in the noise regs for general industry and construction to mean "can be done," and cite companies even if they have hearing conservation programs in place.

OSHA currently hasn't been citing companies for lack of controls if the controls would be more expensive than a hearing conservation program. This approach has been supported by various OSHRC and court interpretations over the years. The October 19 Federal Register notice takes aim at decisions that support the cost-benefit approach, and is largely a legal justification of the new interpretation.

Under the new approach to noise regulation, OSHA will cite a company for lack of administrative or engineering controls unless implementing such controls will put the company out of business or do serious damage to its competitiveness. And if the economic hardship would come as a result of not having an effective hearing protection program, that's not going to be an acceptable excuse.

Obviously, it's always better to reduce or eliminate a hazard. But will companies that are protecting their workers using PPE now have to abandon that approach and re-engineer their processes? Is there a surge in workplace hearing loss that's driving this new interpretation, or is it OSHA management asserting its control over what it believes have been wrong-headed OSHRC decisions? What does this suggest for I2P2 and other OSHA initiatives?

OSHA will accept comments on its new enforcement policy through December 20. ISEA (which represents hearing protection manufacturers) hasn't developed a position at this time, but we'd like to get a conversation going. We've started a discussion, with links to the Federal Register notice and other materials, at our blog,, and we'll track comments on this site as well.

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Comment by Neil M Purfield on October 22, 2010 at 5:52pm
Common sense should dictate that no individual in any industry should suffer hearing loss as an acceptable risk in providing for his/her family. If protections were not in place or enforced I dare say we would see workers breaking steel with their bare hands, much like the industry in India.

Medium sized industry across a wide spectrum has proven repeatedly that when audits to Health, Safety and Environmental programs are completed they fail in compliance and standards in various areas.

What industry has failed to adopt and by this I specifically point to the leadership of these companies is the failure to design into their business plans a comprehensive risk assessment safety model implemented into their business growth strategy.

Fail to plan, plan to fail as the saying goes.

It is impossible to plan for all contingencies and employee involvement becomes all the more critical to the success of the company long term, it is after all the human resources at the end of the day bringing the product to market. Therefore, you would expect these “assets” would be afforded the level of protection required to safely complete their tasks.

There are economic factors in play; these factors if companies had an active injury reduction plan in place with the aforementioned business plan would have been accounted for during the process, failing to address the issues upfront and proactively always returns to bite you in the butt.

Industry needs to protect its workers and standards should be consistent across the country in plain easy to understand terms, this is not a case of government intervention into the private sector, it is a reaction from OSHA for industry failing to be proactive.

The safety and protection of the workforce in business planning strategies and action plans would serve industry in America long term reducing claims and preventable incidents. Applying engineering, administrative and PPE controls to reduce noise levels is only rocket science if industry wants it to be that way.

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