The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is giving businesses and others more time to offer feedback about the proposed interpretation for its noise control provisions. OSHA announced in a press release that the official comment period will be extended to March 21, 2011, while a stakeholder meeting held prior to that deadline will allow the agency to hear from businesses and workers who will be affected by the interpretation.

According to Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, "We have by no means completed our review of the issue and seek to make an informed decision that is in the best interest of protecting workers, yet sensitive to the operating changes businesses would need to make.”

Those changes could include altering employee schedules so workers spend less time in noisy environments or installing noise-dampening equipment. Under OSHA’s reinterpretation, administrative or engineering controls would be the primary means of reducing workplace noise, with hearing-protection drvices used only as supplemental measures, when engineered controls are not effective.

OSHA cites Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that 22,000 cases of hearing loss due to high workplace levels in 2008, with 125,000 workers suffering significant, permanent hearing loss since 2004.

Responding to continuing high levels of hearing loss among employees in the nation's workplaces, the notice proposed to make enforcement of the hearing conservation standard consistent with enforcement of other OSHA standards by clarifying the term "feasible administrative or engineering controls" as used in OSHA's general industry and construction occupational noise exposure standards.

OSHA's current enforcement policy for noise exposures less than 100 decibels has not accurately reflected the noise standard's requirements that feasible engineering and administrative controls be used as the primary means of reducing noise exposure. Instead, OSHA has allowed many employers to rely upon a hearing conservation program, including the use of hearing protectors such as ear plugs.

"There is sufficient evidence that hearing protection alone cannot prevent workers from suffering preventable hearing loss," said Michaels. "Easily applied administrative or engineering controls can and must be used to protect workers. There are plenty of employers out there who play by the rules and want to do the right thing, and we're hopeful we can work with them to craft a policy that's good for all."