Change in noise standards grabs business groups

Some of K Street’s biggest lobbying forces are up in arms over a proposal that would require businesses to reduce noise to protect their workers.

The new proposal from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) could force businesses to shift schedules so that workers spend less time around noisy machines. They might also have to install sound-damping equipment to muffle noise and protect workers.

OSHA last week extended a comment period for its proposal in response to a request from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Home Builders and several other groups. Lobbyists will have until March 21 to submit comments.

The business organizations say the rules could lead to job losses and hurt the economy, and hope the Republican House puts pressure on OSHA. The new Republican House has promised to take an aggressive approach toward oversight of the Obama administration, which is expected to use regulations to enact policies now that it will be tougher to move a pro-labor agenda through Congress.

“It would certainly warrant a closer look,” Keith Smith, NAM’s director of employment and labor policy, said of the new proposal.

Unions say the proposal would keep workers safe, and that merely having ear plugs and ear muffs to block out noise does not do enough to protect workers from hearing loss.

At issue is a reinterpretation of an OSHA rule on health risks for employees in noisy workplaces. The reinterpretation of OSHA’s noise standard says employers should rely on “feasible administrative or engineering controls” to reduce workplace noise first. Ear plugs and muffs should only be used as supplemental measures, not by themselves, when those controls are not effective, OSHA said.

The administrative or engineering controls would include schedule changes or noise-dampening equipment.

The reinterpretation would not change the level of noise workers can be exposed to when equipped with protection, which is 90 decibels or more for an eight-hour workday. This sound level is comparable to the noise from a lawnmower.

The rule change “is going to have a massive impact in terms of lost jobs, stifling hiring, slowing down hiring,” said Joe Trauger, NAM’s vice president of human resources policy.

Manufacturing industries with large, noisy machines, such as steel foundries or plastic-makers, would likely be the most affected.

Trauger said the agency has not given a good reason for the change. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled by NAM shows that hearing-loss injuries in the workplace dropped from 2004 to 2009, he said.

“The question is, Why is OSHA doing this? To be frank, I don’t know and we’re not sure,” Trauger said.

Labor supports the new initiative by OSHA.

Bill Kojola, an industrial hygienist in the AFL-CIO's health and safety department, said OSHA’s proposal is necessary to keep workers safe. He compared it to engineering controls in place for other health hazards, such as a ventilation system installed to suck up airborne toxins.

“Hearing plugs and hearing muffs don’t do an adequate job of protecting workers from noise compared to engineering controls. Excessive levels of noise can lead to hearing loss,” Kojola said.

Kojola said the OSHA proposal will bring the agency standard for hazardous noise in line with its other safety rules, which require employers to install engineering controls to mitigate workers’ health risks. In addition, Kojola said business groups’ concerns about the proposal are overstated.

“OSHA is not in the business of driving an employer out of business,” Kojola said. “It is not going to happen.”

Along with an extended comment period, OSHA plans to hold a stakeholder meeting on the proposal, planned to be held either in late January or February next year. David Michaels, assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health, said the agency would work with employers to tweak the proposal if need be.

“OSHA is sensitive to possible costs associated with improving worker protection,” Michaels said in response to questions from The Hill. “Our common objective is to ensure that workers don’t lose their hearing without overly burdening employers. OSHA will take all stakeholder comments seriously and will fully consider impacts on business and workers before determining what final action, if any, we will take.”

Michaels also noted that his agency is "simply proposing that the term 'feasible administrative or engineering controls' apply to noise in the same way it has always applied to all of OSHA's other general industry and construction workplace safety standards."

NAM is in the process of gathering data on economic and operational changes for businesses that would result from the OSHA proposal. In addition, trade-group lobbyists held a briefing for Senate and House staff this week about the proposal.