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OSHA retreats on workplace noise interpretation

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has withdrawn its proposed “Interpretation of OSHA's Provisions for Feasible Administrative or Engineering Controls of Occupational Noise.” Published Oct. 19, 2010 in the Federal Register, it would have clarified the term “feasible administrative or engineering controls” as used in OSHA's noise standard.

“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 in early-January with members of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, in response to a letter a letter from Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who co-chair 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, OSHA contends. 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.

For small businesses, OSHA's On-site Consultation Program offers free and confidential advice on health and safety solutions with priority given to high-hazard worksites. Through this program, small and medium-sized employers can obtain free advice on addressing noise hazards. On-site consultation services exist in every state, and they are independent from OSHA's enforcement efforts.