Why the proposed hearing loss rule is leading to disagreements

Recordkeeping rules may change, but employers should still protect workers from loud noises.

Recordkeeping rules may change, but employers should still protect workers from loud noises.

Back in October, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed 18 rule changes as part of its Standard Improvements Project-Phase IV.

One of those potential rule changes is the reporting of job-related hearing loss. In the time since that proposal was unveiled, the rule has led to disagreements between OSHA and unions across the country.

Is hearing loss related to work?

In a letter to OSHA, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition said its opposition to the proposal revolves around recordkeeping provisions for hearing loss. In OSHA's proposal, employers would have to record hearing loss if work contributed to the health issue in any way, according to Insurance Journal.

The CISC opposes the rule because it would potentially cause confusion, as the change overlaps with existing OSHA regulations. Currently, under 29 C.F.R. 1904.10(b)(6)), employers aren't required to record hearing loss if health care professionals determine it wasn't caused by work or significantly aggravated by work site noises.

But under 29 C.F.R. 1904.5, employers have to consider injuries and illnesses as work-related if conditions contributed or significantly aggravated a preexisting illness or injury, explained Bloomberg BNA. If the rule is finalized, employers would potentially be required to record hearing loss injuries they wouldn't have had to in the past. In its letter, the CISC stated the rule would add extra compliance costs without an assessment of benefits.

Additionally, the requirement may be seen as subjective and open employers up to unforeseen citations.

"Consequently, these substantive changes should be subject to the traditional notice and comment rulemaking procedures as opposed to the more informal SIP procedure," the CISC wrote.

Workers wearing earmuffs.OSHA wants to change how hearing loss injuries are recorded.

Major union supports proposal

Not all industry groups are opposed to OSHA's proposed rule, however. The Laborers' Health & Safety Fund of North America voiced its support because employers already record few hearing loss injuries. In a letter, the LHSFNA said it's OK with the idea of recording all hearing loss instances, even if work wasn't a primary contributing factor.

"It is consistent with OSHA's compliance directives and interpretations of the standard and is particularly important in construction where chronic conditions develop over time across many different workplaces and employers," the LHSFNA wrote. "Hopefully this change will lead to greater ascertainment of hearing loss cases in construction and a more accurate view of the scope of this significant problem."

OSHA hasn't provided a timetable regarding if and when the proposed rule might be finalized or discarded. Either way, employers should still strive to create safe work site conditions to avoid the potential for hearing loss.

Reduce noise exposure

According to OSHA, approximately 22 million workers are exposed to damaging noises every year. Nearly $242 million is spent annually on workers compensation for hearing loss disability. Additionally in 2016, employers were collectively fined over $1.5 million for failing to shield employees from harmful noises.

Employees can reduce noise exposure by identifying warning signs of loud noises and controlling those hazards by implementing a hearing conservation program.

A program needs to be created when worker noise exposure is equal to or greater than 85 decibels over an eight-hour exposure period.

Warning signs

Noises are a health issue if employees experience any or all of the following signs:

  • Temporary hearing loss after leaving work.
  • Having to shout at a co-worker when he or she is an arm's length away.
  • Experiencing humming or ringing in the ears after leaving work.

Engineering controls

If employees complain of harmful noises, companies may be operating work sites in violation of General Industry Standards 29 C.F.R. 1910. Employers will need to make plans to reduce decibel levels through engineering controls, a process that involves replacing or modifying equipment at its noise source. Examples include lubricating machines, placing barriers between noise sources and employees, isolating the noise source and choosing low-noise machinery.

Industrial workersA hearing conservation program helps protect a worker's hearing.

Administrative controls

Employers and safety managers should strive to keep their workers out of harm's way by reducing their exposure to loud noises. Administrative controls can be any of the following:

  • Keeping workers a suitable distance away from loud equipment.
  • Limiting the time an individual spends at or near a noise source.
  • Allowing workers to spend time in a quiet area, such as a sound proof room.
  • Operating machinery only when fewer people will be exposed.

Protective gear

PPE also plays an important role in protecting workers from loud noises. Hearing protection devices like earmuffs and plugs limit a worker's exposure to loud noises. However, OSHA stated those devices should complement engineering and administrative controls.

Additional steps

A hearing conservation program should also incorporate key elements, from measuring decibels, testing workers' hearing levels and informing them of the dangers of loud noises.

While it remains to be seen if OSHA decides to change its hearing loss recordkeeping rule, companies should still limit loud noise liabilities.

Employers should contact Total Safety for more helpful methods and gear to protect employees from hazardous noises.