The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is extending the comment period on its controversial proposal to mandate quieter workplaces and allow less reliance on hearing protection.
Comments will now be accepted until March 21, 2011, on the “Interpretation of OSHA’s Provisions for Feasible Administrative or Engineering Controls of Occupational Noise,” which was published Oct. 19 in the Federal Register. The deadline had been Dec. 20.
The agency also announced that it would hold a stakeholder meeting before the comment deadline to listen to the concerns of businesses and workers about the proposal.
What ‘Feasible’ Means
The notice clarifies the term “feasible administrative or engineering controls” as used in the general industry and construction noise exposure standards, to make the meaning consistent with OSHA’s other standards.
OSHA’s current enforcement policy for noise exposures less than 100 decibels “has not accurately reflected” the requirement that employers must use all feasible engineering and administrative controls as the primary means of reducing noise exposure, the agency says.
Instead, many employers have been allowed to rely on a hearing conservation program that includes the use of protective equipment such as ear plugs.
OSHA says the proposal is needed to address continuing high levels of hearing loss in the workplace. Thousands of workers every year suffer from preventable hearing loss due to high workplace noise levels, the agency says.
Since 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that more than 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss. In 2008 alone, BLS reported 22,000 hearing loss cases, OSHA said.
Hearing Protection Not Enough
“There is sufficient evidence that hearing protection alone cannot prevent workers from suffering preventable hearing loss,” said Dr. David Michaels, OSHA Administrator.
“Easily applied administrative or engineering controls can and must be used to protect workers. There are plenty of employers out there who play by the rules and want to do the right thing, and we’re hopeful we can work with them to craft a policy that’s good for all.”
“We’re very eager to get input from those parties who would be affected by this proposed interpretation.”
Critics Seek Delay
The proposal would have far-reaching consequences in the workplace. Critics call it a reversal of decades of OSHA practice, and the National Association of Manufacturers and employer-led Coalition for Workplace Safety, among others, requested more time for review.
Business groups have been successfully pushing for delays in other unwanted federal proposals recently, and Michaels attempted to sound conciliatory in announcing the extension of the comment period.
“We have by no means completed our review of the issue and seek to make an informed decision that is in the best interest of protecting workers, yet sensitive to the operating changes businesses would need to make,” he said.
Comments may be submitted online at http://www.regulations.gov. Individuals may also mail or deliver comments (three copies) to the OSHA Docket Office, Docket No. OSHA-2010-0032, U.S. Department of Labor, Room N-2625, 200 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20210. Submissions not longer than 10 pages may be faxed to 202-693-1648.
For more information, visit http://www.osha.gov.