Occupational Noise: New OSHA Interpretation Changes Hazardous Noise Control

Nov 29th, 2010 | By | Category: Health and Safety

Reliance on the use of hearing protection to control hazardous noise exposures in the United States would be severely limited under a proposed interpretation published by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on October 19, 2010. OSHA’s reinterpretation of the word “feasible” as applied to engineering and administrative noise controls would essentially require using these controls whenever economically feasible rather than using hearing protection.

This document constitutes OSHA’s official interpretation of the term feasible administrative or engineering controls as used in the applicable sections of OSHA’s General Industry and Construction Occupational Noise Exposure standards. Under the standard, employers must use administrative or engineering controls rather than personal protective equipment (PPE) to reduce noise exposures that are above acceptable levels when such controls are feasible. OSHA proposes to clarify that feasible as used in the standard has its ordinary meaning of capable of being done. (Source: Federal Register: October 19, 2010 [Volume 75, Number 201, Summary, Page 64216])

According to the notice, OSHA now proposes to consider administrative or engineering controls economically feasible when the cost of implementing such controls will not threaten the employer’s ability to remain in business.

OSHA also announced that it would revise its current enforcement policy to reflect this interpretation.

The notice provides definitions of engineering and administrative controls.

Engineering controls involve modifications to plant, equipment, processes or materials that reduce the sound intensity at the source, by substituting quieter machines and processes, or by isolating the machine or its operator.

Administrative controls involve modifications of work assignments to reduce employees’ exposure to noise, such as rotating employees so that they work in noisy areas for a short time. 

Parties who wish to comment on the proposed interpretation must do so by December 20, 2010.

Further Information

OSHA Trade News Release: OSHA seeks comments on its official interpretation of workplace noise exposure controls, October 19, 2010.

About the Author

Kwame Gilbert-Arthur is a project consultant at Environmental Resources Management in Boston, U.S.A. He specializes in environmental due diligence and environmental compliance assistance.

Photograph:   Light Circles by Vince Pataky, Budapest, Pest, Hungary. 

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One Comment to “Occupational Noise: New OSHA Interpretation Changes Hazardous Noise Control”

  1. Mike Bittner says:

    On January 19, 2011, OSHA issued the following news release withdrawing this proposal:

    The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration today announced 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.”


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