OSHA seeks comments on its official interpretation of workplace noise exposure controls

OSHA issued a notice in the Oct. 19 Federal Register proposing to issue an interpretation of the term “feasible administrative or engineering controls” as used in the general industry and construction occupational noise exposure standards and to amend its current enforcement policy to reflect the interpretation. This change is intended to better protect the hearing of approximately 30 million workers who are exposed to hazardous noise each year.
OSHA’s noise standards specify that feasible administrative or engineering controls must be used to reduce noise to acceptable levels and that personal protective equipment, such as ear plugs and ear muffs, must be used only as supplements when administrative or engineering controls are not completely effective. The preference for engineering and administrative controls over personal protective equipment is consistent with the approach taken in all of OSHA’s health standards and reflects the fact that such controls are generally more effective. Under the agency’s current enforcement policy, however, the agency issues citations for failure to use engineering and administrative controls only when they cost less than a hearing conservation program or such equipment is ineffective.
Noise overexposure is often ignored because the harmful effects are typically not visible and develop over an extended period of time. Workers exposed to high noise levels can develop elevated blood pressure, ringing in the ears or permanent hearing loss.
OSHA proposes to interpret the term “feasible” in conformity with its ordinary meaning and with the safety and health purposes of the OSH Act. The Supreme Court has held that the term “feasible” as used in the standard-setting provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act means “capable of being done.” The proposal aligns the interpretation of the noise standard with the Court’s holding and with OSHA’s other standards that require feasible engineering controls. OSHA proposes to interpret the term “feasible” in its ordinary meaning of “capable of being done.” OSHA intends to change its noise enforcement policy to authorize issuing citations requiring the use of administrative and engineering controls whenever feasible.
Comments on the proposed interpretation should be submitted before the Dec. 20 deadline either online, by mail or by fax. See the Federal Register notice for more information.

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