OSHA's Retraction of Proposed Noise Exposure Interpretation

January 24, 2011 By Robert A. Dimling, Andrew R. Kaake

On Wednesday, January 19, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") announced its decision to withdraw its newly-proposed interpretation of the agency's noise exposure standard. Under this standard, employers with employees exposed at or above certain threshold noise levels must use "feasible" administrative and engineering controls to reduce noise to acceptable levels. OSHA intended to alter its long-standing interpretation of when administrative and engineering controls are "feasible." However, after receiving feedback from Senators Olympia Snowe and Joseph Lieberman and the public, OSHA has "suspended work on this proposed modification."

This decision comes as welcome news to employers concerned about the potential costs of adhering to a heightened noise exposure standard. Had the proposed interpretation been adopted, more employers would have been required to implement costly administrative and engineering controls. 

Administrative controls involve limiting how long an employee can work in an area with high noise levels; engineering controls involve physical barriers or equipment modifications that reduce the decibel level of workplace noise. Employers are required to implement such controls when they are "feasible." Employees must wear personal protective equipment such as ear plugs when administrative and engineering controls are not completely effective. 

OSHA has considered administrative and engineering controls "feasible" only when such controls are less expensive than an alternative hearing conservation program that utilizes personal protective equipment. Under the suspended proposal, OSHA would have interpreted "feasible" as meaning "capable of being done." This interpretation would have differed from the established cost-benefit test in that OSHA would have considered administrative and engineering controls "feasible" as long as their costs did not threaten an employer's ability to stay in business. Given that the proposal has been withdrawn, the cost-benefit test continues in effect.

Although this withdrawal is encouraging news, OSHA is still focused on the noise exposure standard. Before deciding how to proceed, the agency intends to elicit suggestions from employers, workers, and health professionals on preventing hearing loss. Employers can benefit from continuing to express their views on this issue to OSHA. 

For questions regarding this or any other OSHA matter, please contact Bob Dimling, Andy Kaake, or any other attorney in Frost Brown Todd's Labor and Employment Practice Group.

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