Unions and OSHA Clash over Hearing Loss Rule

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Pending Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Clarifications on Hearing Loss

The gradual nature of much hearing loss is at the center of a current conflict regarding pending Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) clarifications and a group of employer organizations, including the Construction Industry Safety Coalition. The disagreement has arisen with a clarification that OSHA has proposed for its current standards, which some groups are contesting is too great a categorization shift in the way hearing loss is reported and recorded on-the-job.


Clarification Proposed by OSHA & Mixed Responses

The clarification states that cases of hearing loss must be recorded in employee injury and illness logs if workplace conditions have contributed to that loss “in any way”. Employer groups opposing this clarification state that the clarification broadens the reporting requirements for hearing loss far too much, overstating the impact workplace has in contributing to gradual hearing damage.

Conversely, worker’s unions such as the Laborers’ International Union (LIU) and its associated Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA) agree with the proposed clarification. LHSFNA issued this statement in support of OSHA’s clarified language, citing the significant impact it may have on the construction industry:

“Hearing loss is very common in construction, yet few hearing loss cases are recorded in the OSHA 300 log. The proposed change will clarify that hearing loss must be recorded if work has contributed to it in any way, even if work is not the predominant or substantial contributor. This is an important change that the LHSFNA fully supports. It is consistent with OSHA’s compliance directives and interpretations of the standard and is particularly important in construction where chronic conditions develop over time across many different workplaces and employers. Hopefully this change will lead to greater ascertainment of hearing loss cases in construction and a more accurate view of the scope of this significant problem.”


Purpose of OSHA’s Clarification

OSHA’s proposed clarification is meant to rectify discrepancies in understanding workplace influence on hearing loss conditions. In one part of OSHA’s current standards (29 C.F.R. 1904.10(b)(6)), employers are not required to report hearing loss in their OSHA 300 log if a healthcare professional does not recognize workplace environment as a significant contributor to the condition. However, a more general rule enveloping OSHA’s standards, (29 C.F.R. 1904.5), states that employers must classify injury or illness as work-related if on-the-job circumstances, exposures or events contribute to a health problem or aggravate a pre-existing condition.

Current on-the-job injury reporting favors the allowances given in OSHA provision 29 C.F.R. 1904.10 (b)(6) and the proposed clarification tightens those allowances, supporting a more comprehensive analysis of hearing loss for the worker. The clarification is in alignment with OSHA’s 2012 Record keeping Policies and Procedures Manual, which clearly affirms that it is not necessary for workplace factors to be the primary cause of hearing loss for hearing loss to be diagnosed and reported as a workplace illness or injury (CPL 02-00-135).

Advocates for employers have confronted OSHA over the clarification. The Coalition for Workplace Safety, which represents a group of employers, states that the ambiguities in OSHA’s existing code are appropriate, citing a 2002 OSHA Record keeping Statement that hearing loss cannot be “presumed” by healthcare providers based on a standard of workplace noise conditions. Of course, more leeway in hearing loss diagnosis will act in the favor of these employers and their liabilities for worker’s health.


OSHA Guidelines & Workplace Noise

OSHA as an organization has made thorough guidelines and standards regarding the monitoring of Occupational Noise Exposure. Currently, employers must monitor the auditory health of any employee being exposed to 85 decibels or higher for periods of eight hours or longer. The nuances of gradual hearing loss should be monitored via audiograms for employees with such exposure.

Hearing loss is a widespread health problem, yet, because it is also an invisible condition, it can lead to patients delaying medical diagnosis and treatment. As the LHSFNA advises, the adoption of OSHA’s proposed clarification will make employers accountable for the effect of working conditions on hearing loss. It is suspected that workplace-related hearing loss is significantly under-reported because of current leeway in OSHA standards. 

After an extended response period, comments have closed for the proposed OSHA clarifications. News of their review and whether or not the clarified interpretation of workplace-related hearing loss will be approved should be forthcoming.

If you are concerned about your hearing abilities, the first step is to take a hearing test. At Sound Hearing Group, we provide comprehensive hearing tests and hearing aid fittings.

Contact us to schedule an appointment.