Hearing Conservation Squelched at OSHA
As his four-year tenure at OSHA came to an end in December, former Director John Henshaw released the agency’s 2005 regulatory agenda.
“We were very disappointed to see that OSHA downgraded the hearing conservation standard in construction from the ‘prerule’ to the ‘long term action’ stage,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan. “This is not a good sign.”
When LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Director Scott Schneider investigated further, an OSHA staffer, speaking off the record, denied that the downgrade meant any change in OSHA’s approach to the proposed standard.
However, in a January 3 interview on National Public Radio, Henshaw further confused the situation when he responded to a reporter’s question about downgrading items on the regulatory agenda, including, specifically, the hearing standard. “Some people think when we took that off, we stopped working on it. The fact is we weren’t working on it anyway. Because it does supply political cover for people, including me. I could say it’s on the regulatory agenda, get off my back. But that’s a dishonest representation of what we’re doing.”
Based on his contact with OSHA staffers, Schneider believes that the standard is not dead and will advance, albeit more slowly than hoped. Still, under the Bush Administration, OSHA has drifted far from the agenda articulated by President Clinton’s OSHA chief Charles Jeffress at the LHSFNA’s 2000 conference on hearing loss in construction.
There, Jeffress said, “Already, too much time has passed since OSHA adopted the hearing conservation standard for general industry in 1983. At that time, we pledged to develop a separate, similar requirement for construction. But we’ve yet to deliver on that promise.
“Someone once said,” Jeffress continued, “’You never find time for everything. If you want time, you must make it.’ I want you to know that OSHA is determined to make the time to develop a more detailed hearing conservation standard for construction. And we intend to issue an advance notice of proposed rulemaking this year.”
Later that year, when Bush was elected, the regime at OSHA changed, and action slowed to a crawl. Some stakeholder meetings were held, some analysis was performed and, apparently, says Schneider, a regulatory text – as yet, unreleased – was developed. “They have moved forward but very slowly. I think the main issue is that this administration does not want to issue any new regulations, unless they are reducing existing requirements.”
A large proportion of construction laborers suffer serious hearing loss. Because, typically, the loss occurs slowly over the course of a laborer’s career due to exposures on a host of worksites of various employers, they seldom are able to secure redress from workers’ compensation or particular employers. By far, the best hope is to prevent loss through improved hearing conservation programs. However, with no standard in place, few employers – particularly, non-union employers – do anything more than supply earplugs.
“Of course, earplugs are a good thing,” says Schneider, “but without a program that requires noise monitoring, noise control, employee and supervisor training, annual audiometric testing, record keeping and program evaluation, earplugs are simply inadequate. Too often, they’re not used properly, and, frequently, they’re inadequate for the noise level on the site.”
The LHSFNA OSH Division has designed a comprehensive model hearing program and will assist LIUNA signatory employers in its implementation. It also has a special noise page on its website that includes a Best Practices Guide for controlling noise on construction worksites. For help with hearing conservation, email the OSH Division or give us a call.