OSHA withdraws proposed interpretation on occupational noise

January 2011 Vol. 66 No. 1

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Jan. 19 that it is withdrawing its proposed interpretation titled “Interpretation of OSHA’s Provisions for Feasible Administrative or Engineering Controls of Occupational Noise.”

The interpretation would have clarified the term “feasible administrative or engineering controls” as used in OSHA’s noise standard. The proposed interpretation was published in the Federal Register on Oct. 19, 2010.

“Hearing loss caused by excessive noise levels remains a serious occupational health problem in this country,” said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “However, it is clear from the concerns raised about this proposal that addressing this problem requires much more public outreach and many more resources than we had originally anticipated. 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.”

Michaels met earlier this month with the offices of Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, members of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, in response to a letter from the senators. Sens. Snowe and Lieberman are also co-chairs of the Senate Task Force on Manufacturing.

Thousands of workers every year continue to suffer from preventable hearing loss due to high workplace noise levels. Since 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that nearly 125,000 workers have suffered significant, permanent hearing loss. In 2008 alone, BLS reported more than 22,000 hearing loss cases, and Michaels emphasized that OSHA remains committed to finding ways to reduce this toll.

As part of this effort, the agency will:

• Conduct a thorough review of comments that have been submitted in response to the Federal Register notice and of any other information it receives on this issue.
• Hold a stakeholder meeting on preventing occupational hearing loss to elicit the views of employers, workers, and noise control and public health professionals.
• Consult with experts from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the National Academy of Engineering.
• Initiate a robust outreach and compliance assistance effort to provide enhanced technical information and guidance on the many inexpensive, effective engineering controls for dangerous noise levels.