NIOSH Recommends Changes to Occupational Noise Standard

Date: Nov 16, 1998

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard limiting exposure to noise in the workplace was last modified in 1983 by the hearing conservation amendment. That change allowed employers to use personal hearing protection and a hearing conservation program--without having to first adopt noise-reduction engineering controls--when employee exposures to noise were below 100 dBA. This amendment was an exception to OSHA's "hierarchy of controls" policy, which requires employers to adopt engineering controls--i.e., physical changes in the workplace--before resorting to administrative controls or personal protective equipment to minimize workplace hazards.

In June, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) revised its Criteria Document on Occupational Noise Exposure and made several key recommendations to change OSHA's standard:

    • Follow the OSHA hierarchy of controls policy and require the use of engineering controls to reduce occupational noise, allowing hearing protection only as a last resort or in the interim while engineering controls are being implemented.
    • Change the "doubling rate" from 5 to 3 dBA, substantially reducing the allowable exposure time as sound levels increase.
    • Reduce the estimated protection afforded by hearing protection.
    • Cut the noise level for the 8-hour time-weighted average exposure limit from 90 to 85 dBA.
    • Include exposure to sound levels above 80 dBA in determining total noise exposure.

Effectively, these changes would dramatically increase the number of workplaces and employees covered by noise regulation and significantly reduce the number of workplaces and employees that can achieve compliance with current hearing protection.

The NIOSH recommendations allegedly are supported by a reanalysis of data more than 30 years old, and the report contains no new data. More important, the report provides no analyses of current occupational experience in companies using effective hearing conservation programs. The lack of any current data underlying the NIOSH proposal raises serious questions about the suitability of the document to support any changes in the OSHA standard.

For further information, please contact David G. Sarvadi at 202-434-4249 or sarvadi@khlaw.com.