Hearing advocates are defending OSHA's decision to change its interpretation of noise control enforcement, saying that many employers’ concerns are based on “misunderstandings.”

Responding to critics who charge OSHA with attempting to do an end run around the rulemaking process, the National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) says the change is a correction – not a new rule -- that will allow the agency to enforce the original language and intent of the decades-old policy.

"It's unfortunate that there's such an outcry about this proposed change now," said Rick Neitzel, Ph.D., CIH, Immediate Past President of the NHCA. "The real outcry should have happened 26 years ago when OSHA first established a noise control enforcement policy that was legally questionable and that effectively gutted what would otherwise have been an important occupational health protection for American workers."

The NHCA says the revision represents a return to the original intent of OSHA's noise regulation, “which is to institute engineering or administrative controls for employees with eight-hour average exposures over 90 dBA.” The NHCA also notes that OSHA's proposed definition of the word feasible (i.e., "capable of being done") would make requirements for controls consistent with OSHA's other health regulations.

OSHA announced plans in October to revise the interpretation, a move the NHCA says will correct “the current lenient enforcement policy” but that some companies claim is unnecessary and will harm employers.

Opponents of the policy change predict that it will result in higher costs, reduce competitiveness and cost jobs. The NHCA counters that the new policy will apply only to those workers who are enrolled in hearing conservation programs and exposed to eight-hour average exposures greater than 90 dBA – about 10 percent of the workforce -- while the majority of U.S. workplaces will not be affected. Only facilities whose eight-hour average exposures are over 90 dBA will have to implement noise controls, not those who simply have noise levels over 90 dBA. Additionally, the NHCA says that noise controls are not necessarily expensive and difficult to implement, as is commonly believed.

Addressing claims that the change in policy isn't needed because hearing conservation programs are working and hearing protectors are effective, the NHCA points to studies showing that workers are continuing to lose their hearing in spite of hearing conservation programs, many of which rely on workers' use of hearing protectors rather than noise controls.

From the NHCA statement: “The current policy has made noise the only regulated health hazard in which OSHA has failed to acknowledge the primacy of engineering controls, and has resulted in a substantial increase in risk of hearing loss for some American workers. The alternative exposure reduction method currently allowed by OSHA for eight hour average exposures between 90 and 100 dBA is the use of earplugs or earmuffs, which have been demonstrated to provide insufficient protection for many workers, if they are used at all.”

The NHCA, whose mission is the prevention of hearing loss due to noise and other environmental factors, has a membership that includes audiologists, researchers, industrial hygienists, physicians and occupational health nurses, safety professionals and engineers.