OSHA issued a notice this morning announcing the agency’s intention of changing its official interpretation of workplace noise exposure standards and enforcement. Currently OSHA, and rightfully so, regulates the acceptable levels of noise that employees are exposed to in the workplace. To protect their employees against hearing loss, the agency has allowed employers to provide personal protective equipment – earplugs, ear muffs – to supplement their operating practices (like duration of exposure, frequency of use) and engineering controls (like noise dampening equipment and muffling systems). OSHA’s common-sense approach held that it was OK for employers to take this approach – personal protective equipment — toward noise prevention when it was effective.
However, OSHA plans to abandon this practice. In its notice, the agency announces its goal of requiring employers to implement all “feasible” controls – using a defintion of “feasible” that means “capable of being done”– regardless of the costs or the effectiveness of currently used personal protective equipment.
This means that employers must make sweeping changes to their workplaces — introduce new workplace practices and install new equipment — to quiet workplaces even if employees are already protected from loud noises with effective earplugs and the like.
These changes must be done regardless of their costs unless an employer can prove that making such changes will “put them out of business” or will threaten the company’s “viability,” according to the notice. This means that despite the costs of the new structural changes or the benefits of their current programs, employers will be expected to retool their workplaces. Should this change move forward, OSHA will begin enforcing this new policy with citations. Unless employers can prove to OSHA inspection officers that the changes will be economically devastating or are impossible to make, the companies will be forced to put these costly new requirements into effect.
So even though employees can be completely protected, employers will have to spend more to comply these additional OSHA requirements, costs that will be pose an extra burden on smaller businesses. The Small Business Administration recently reported that smaller firms pay nearly $3,000 more per employee than larger firms to comply with government regulations. That’s money that could be usefully spent on creating jobs and paying wages and benefits.