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, www.safetysignals.org, and we'll track comments on this site as well.