OSHA withdraws proposed noise interpretation

Washington – A proposed interpretation of OSHA noise standards was withdrawn Jan. 19, three months after it was first published in the Federal Register.

Interpretation of OSHA's Provisions for Feasible Administrative or Engineering Controls of Occupational Noise (.pdf file) would have clarified what OSHA deems "feasible" in 1910.95(b)(1) and 1926.52(b), nearly identical sections of the agency's general industry and construction occupational noise exposure standards.

The proposed interpretation was scuttled due to concerns over resources, public outreach and costs, according to OSHA administrator David Michaels.

"We are sensitive to the possible costs associated with improving worker protection and have decided to suspend work on this proposed modification while we study other approaches to abating workplace noise hazards," he said in a press release.

Proposed interpretation

In the proposed interpretation, the agency sought to clarify the term "feasible administrative or engineering controls" in the standards to make enforcement consistent with other regulations. Under the proposed interpretation, the meaning of "feasible" would have been consistent with its usual definition – "capable of being done."

The noise standard was intended to have employers rely on feasible controls to reduce noise exposure, according to OSHA, but the agency’s enforcement policy has allowed employers to instead use hearing conservation programs, including hearing protectors.

In a Dec. 6 statement, Michaels said administrative or engineering controls "can and must" be used, and that evidence supports the view that "hearing protection alone cannot prevent workers from suffering preventable hearing loss."

In light of withdrawing its proposed interpretation, Michaels said OSHA still was committed to reducing the thousands of annual cases of workplace-induced hearing loss. Among the steps OSHA said it would take:

  • Review comments submitted on the issue
  • Host a stakeholder meeting on preventing occupational hearing loss
  • Consult with NIOSH and the National Academy of Engineering
  • Initiate a "robust" outreach and compliance assistance effort to provide guidance on inexpensive and effective engineering controls

A comment period on the proposed interpretation originally was scheduled to end Dec. 20, but was extended to March 21. At press time, an OSHA spokesperson had not responded to inquiries as to why the interpretation was withdrawn before the newly extended comment period closed or whether a proposed stakeholder meeting on the matter had taken place.

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