On October 19, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a proposed interpretation of its hearing conservation standard that raised serious concerns among employers. The interpretation would reverse an earlier enforcement provision that permits employers to readily substitute personal protective equipment for engineering controls to reduce noise exposure.
The noise exposure rule states that ear plugs and other forms of PPE can only be allowed as an alternative to engineering controls if the employer demonstrates that such controls are not feasible. Under current interpretations of this rule, cost is a factor in determining feasibility. OSHA proposed to change this enforcement provision to remove cost analysis in deciding whether engineering controls to reduce noise are feasible.
Predictably, employers had a very negative reaction to this revised interpretation. The expense of reducing ambient noise in an industrial or similar setting could be enormous, especially in comparison to relatively cheap PPE methods. Employers were also concerned that if cost is not taken into account, OSHA could always contend that engineering controls to reduce noise exposure are feasible through some elaborate changes to the production process.
After receiving a firestorm of comments from employers, OSHA has decided to further study the issue. Last week, the agency announced that it is extending the comment period an additional 90 days, through March 21, 2011. This extension may signal a willingness by OSHA to back away from its aggressive interpretation of employer obligations for reducing ambient noise in the workplace.