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Stakeholders Heard on Noise Control Hurdles

[This article was updated on January 17, 2012, with the link to OSHA’s summation that appears at the end.]

Since as far back as 2001 when it organized the National Conference to Prevent Hearing Loss in Construction, the LHSFNA pressed OSHA to get moving on effective noise control in the industry. Despite promises, nothing moved during the Bush Administration, and the Obama Administration is stymied as well.

After revising its noise enforcement policy last year and then rescinding it under pressure from industry, OSHA convened a stakeholder meeting to discuss options in November. Acknowledging the difficulties imposed by the current, pervasive anti-regulatory climate, OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels highlighted the agency’s new web page on noise and other products in development and asserted that OSHA wants to do more.

The stakeholder meeting, with no specific agenda or goals, focused on “best practices” in hearing loss prevention, hearing conservation programs and noise control.

The panelists, many with more than 30 years of work on noise issues, included representatives from several unions (AFL-CIO/BCTD, Steelworkers, UAW and LIUNA) as well as professional associations (including AIHA, ASSE, NHCA and the American Speech Language and Hearing Association), industry groups and government representatives (NIOSH, NASA, DOD, National Academy of Engineering) and academics.

OSHA asked the group for examples of “best practices” for preventing hearing loss. A number of themes emerged:

  • Noise control is considered a best practice.  It is always better to reduce noise levels than to rely on workers to wear hearing protection effectively. Relying on workers to wear hearing protection shifts the burden to the worker and to personal behavior which is difficult to control.
  • Many expressed support for the recommendation that using an 85 dB exposure limit with 3 dB doubling rate (the NIOSH and ACGIH recommendations) rather than the OSHA limits is a best practice. Many industry representatives said their companies were already using the more protective limits. It was pointed out that in 1998, NIOSH calculated the risk of hearing loss at the OSHA limit as one in four.
  • The ANSI A10.46 standard on hearing loss prevention in construction and demolition is pointed to as a model, especially for construction, since it uses a task-based approach to hearing protection rather than a time-weighted average. Small employers particularly liked this approach because it is easy to implement.
  • NASA’s Buy Quiet program is repeatedly cited as a best practice and perhaps a model for all federal procurement.
  • Labeling of noise levels on equipment is a best practice which makes it easier to buy quieter equipment. Labeling is required in Europe. Voluntary labeling is beginning in the U.S.
  • The Safe-in-Sound award recognizes companies that have demonstrated excellence in hearing loss prevention with an emphasis on noise controls.

The discussion also broached issues of compliance and enforcement and the costs of various options in noise control.

The meeting did not include adoption of a direct action plan, but the sharing of views among opinion leaders in the field should produce a rippling effect over time. If so, convening such conversations may be one way that OSHA can advance the nation’s workplace safety and health agenda, despite the difficult regulatory climate.

In the meantime, the LHSFNA continues to press the issue of hearing loss prevention as it affects so many of our members and has such a dramatic impact on their quality of life.  For more information and assistance, contact the Occupational Safety and Health Division.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]

OSHA’s summation of the meeting is available here.

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