OSHA Withdraws Noise Proposal

Concerned over potential costs, manufacturers applaud decision but remain alert as agency examines alternatives.

Manufacturers breathed a sigh of relief in January as OSHA withdrew a proposed change to its occupational noise control standard that industry members said had costly implications.

"OSHA's withdrawal of this unnecessary proposal is a clear sign that the agency heeded the calls of manufacturers regarding the economic impact of these expensive and burdensome noise control requirements," said Joe Trauger, National Association of Manufacturers vice president for human resources policy. "Manufacturers are committed to protecting their employees, but there is no evidence that this proposal would have enhanced workplace safety."

The proposal would have clarified the term "feasible administrative or engineering controls," according to OSHA, which first published the interpretation in the Federal Register in October 2010 and then extended the official comment period for an additional 90 days. "Feasible," said the agency, would be construed as "capable of being done."

Opponents to the proposal worried that it would add significant costs to compliance, possibly requiring the addition of expensive noise-dampening equipment or other technologies. "The potential cost of any mandated engineering control will be prohibitively high compared to the efficacy of personal protective equipment," says Miles Free, director, industry research and technology, for the Precision Machined Products Association.

Free said the PMPA will continue to monitor changes to the noise standard. "We are continuing to collect data so that we can effectively communicate the economics and the burden and additional hazards that changes in this area could bring," he says. Such data include noise levels at the association's member companies.

Indeed, OSHA has stated that it will pursue other approaches to preventing work-related hearing loss, which the agency claims impacts thousands of workers each year. The approaches include providing effective hearing-conservation programs and guidance on "the many inexpensive, effective engineering controls for dangerous noise levels." Examples provided by OSHA of such controls are slotted saw blades that reportedly can reduce noise levels by three to 15 decibels at a cost of $25 to $160; quieter air blow-off nozzles rated to drop noise levels by 14 to 18 decibels, at a cost of $20 to $65; and curtains that absorb noise, at an approximate cost of $575 for a 4-by-8 section.

Free expressed skepticism about the availability of low-cost solutions that don't create further hazards on the shop floor. Fabric, for example, may help dampen noise but is also a fire hazard and absorbs fluids. "There are always unintended consequences," he says.


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