The Modern Evolution of Hearing Conservation Regulations
Theresa Y. Schulz, PhD, CCC-A
It is interesting to study the noise
standards that have been promulgated in the U.S. over the last decade or so.
These regulations are likely to have long-lasting impact. The Occupational
Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Hearing Conservation Amendment (March
1983) continues to have influence not only in the workplace but in the debate
over new regulations. Both the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulatory preamble documents state the
desire to be consistent with OSHA. An examination of Table
1 [PDF], which compares the major components of the three regulations and
the 1998 NIOSH "best practices" criteria, depicts the extent to which that
intent is met.
There has been some regulatory activity in the last decade
which may give some hope for evolution and updating based on the wealth of
science that has occurred during the last quarter of a century since the OSHA
regulation was enacted. However there has also been some "back-sliding" toward
more lenient standards.
The MSHA noise standard made regulatory progress
in September 2000 by emphasizing engineering and administrative controls,
followed by personal protective equipment, in the hierarchy of noise
intervention. MSHA's requirement for technician certification (today only
available from CAOHC) also strengthened the training requirements for
audiometric testing in hearing conservation programs and MSHA also added the
requirement of dual hearing protection at 105 dB TWA.
There were many
subtle differences between OSHA and MSHA based on comments and a desire to
clarify some of the vague aspects of the OSHA noise standard, and meet the needs
of the regulated mining industry. One example pertains to the ceiling for
exposures. OSHA says, "no exposures > 115 dBA," which is interpreted to mean
no unprotected exposures above that level, giving credit for the assumed
effectiveness of hearing conservation programs, hearing protection devices, and
administrative and engineering controls. MSHA specified that a "P" code 1violation be issued for any protected or unprotected
exposures >115 dBA.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) noise
standard for railroad operating employees, which went into effect February 26,
2007, was expressly based on the OSHA standard but also uses MSHA for
comparison. The preamble states that the FRA defers to OSHA as the "primary
regulator of noise in the workplace," but also acknowledges the need for some
departure from the OSHA regulation (FRA Preamble II.B). As an example, FRA
requires testing at 8000 Hz "because it will allow employers to identify hearing
loss sooner." The FRA rejected MSHA's hierarchy of noise controls in favor of
requiring specific engineering interventions and focusing on appropriate hearing
protection which would still allow communication and audibility and
identification of excessive noise through mandatory "excessive noise reports."
2Where OSHA has no specific mandate requiring
employees to take advantage of the employer-paid audiogram, it has been
traditionally a condition of employment and is generally accepted that
OSHA-covered workers require an annual audiogram. MSHA addressed this issue in
its preamble; however, they made no significant change. MSHA employers are
required to offer annual audiograms but MSHA stopped short of requiring
employees to comply with annual audiometric testing. The MSHA preamble does
allow that mine operators can also make audiometric monitoring a condition of
employment. FRA requires employees to complete audiometric testing and hearing
conservation training only every three years, but requires that training be
offered at least once a year.
The FRA loosened some OSHA requirements as
- Audiometric retest can occur within 90 days of the periodic
test vs. OSHA's 30-day requirement;
- Employees must be notified within
30 days about changes in their hearing vs. OSHA's 21 days;
- Exposures up
to 120 dBA are allowed for up to 5 seconds, citing the safety issue of needing
horn blasts to warn the public of oncoming trains.
The FRA states
that audiologists or physicians are responsible for the audiometric testing in a
hearing conservation program and further qualifies that the physician must have
"experience and expertise in hearing and hearing loss."
There appears to
be a general reluctance to deviate too far from the OSHA regulation, however. As
an example, FRA wrote to OSHA asking of any plans to move from a 5-dB to a 3-dB
exchange rate. OSHA replied that there were no such plans and FRA has stayed
with 5 dB despite recommendations from experts in the field to the contrary.
One would hope that employers would want to use "best
practices" rather than being minimally compliant but the realities of the
workplace reveal the unfortunate focus on minimal compliance. The preamble
documents for these regulations are rich with information. One would also hope
that with the evolution of hearing conservation regulations each would "build"
on its predecessors. In some aspects that has occurred, but in others the new
regulations tear down the gains made by previous regulations. See if you think
there is "progress" or "regress" as you read Table
1 [PDF] from left to right.
1A "P" Code is
an administrative device to document (in an MSHA database) when overexposure
conditions remain despite the implementation of all feasible engineering and
administrative controls to reduce the miner's noise exposure to or below the
Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL). The term "P" Code derives from the requirement
to wear protective equipment (e.g. HPDs).
term "Excessive Noise Report," refers to a report filed by a locomotive cab
occupant that indicates that the locomotive is producing an unusual level of
noise such that the noise significantly interferes with normal cab
communications or that the noise raises a concern with respect to hearing
conservation. The employee is required to report such excessive noise and the
training requirements include how and when to make an excessive noise report.
The railroad is required to respond to each report.
first appeared in the Council for Accreditation in Occupational Hearing
Conservation (CAOHC) newsletter, Update, in the winter 2007 issue. It
was reprinted in the Vol. 7, No. 2, March/April 2008 issue of Access
Audiology with the permission of CAOHC.
About the Author
Theresa Y. Schulz, PhD, CCC-A is a Team Leader at the NIOSH Pittsburgh
Research Laboratory, Hearing Loss Prevention Branch, the President of the
National Hearing Conservation Association (NHCA) and a former Chair of CAOHC.
She can be contacted at TSchulz@cdc.gov.