The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced on May 10th, 2022, that its regional emphasis program to prevent hearing loss will move into the enforcement phase on May 17. Specifically, the emphasis program covers manufacturing industries operating in specific states. The emphasis program protects workers who experience high rates of occupational hearing loss within these industries. OSHA’s regional emphasis program was originally effective February 15. Previously, OSHA launched a national emphasis program to prevent heat-related illnesses.

National and Regional Emphasis Programs

National emphasis programs are temporary OSHA programs that devote resources to preventing particular hazards or investigating high-hazard industries. They are based on inspections, reports, injury and illness data, and other sources.

Regional emphasis programs devote the same prevention or investigative resources to hazards or hazardous industries, but are implemented at the regional level. They focus on the office’s jurisdiction. They may include various forms of employer or employee outreach.

Regardless of the type of emphasis program OSHA enforces, employers in all industries nationwide should take note. Prudent employers will evaluate their own workplaces based on both federally enforceable standards under OSHA and the elements of various emphasis programs it undertakes. Finally, employers should monitor the OSHA website to keep aware of any emphasis programs that affect them.

Background of the Emphasis Program to Prevent Hearing Loss

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), hearing loss is the most recorded occupational illness in manufacturing. Furthermore, BLS estimated that, overall, potentially damaging levels of noise affected 18 million workers in 2019. This resulted in 14,500 reported cases of occupational hearing loss. Excessive noise exposure has also been shown to cause:

  • physiological stress,
  • muscle tension, and
  • loss of sleep or fatigue.

Employers, however, can take steps to prevent hearing loss. Occupational noise exposure, as a physical hazard, is among the common workplace hazards employers must address. Employers must implement controls and provide proper protection, following required OSHA noise standards. Under OSHA’s noise standards, employers must implement a hearing conservation program when noise exposure is at or above 85 decibels, averaged over 8 working hours, or an 8-house time-weighted average.

Details of the Emphasis Program to Prevent Hearing Loss

The regional emphasis program to prevent hearing loss facilitates inspections of manufacturers within Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. It focuses on workplaces where workers experience high levels of noise. The regional emphasis program comprises two elements:

  1. Employer and employee outreach to raise awareness of workplace hazards related to exposure to high levels of noise.
  2. Targeted inspections to reduce hazardous noise exposure in the workplace through enforcement.

Employer and Employee Outreach

OSHA’s regional and area offices will develop and implement an outreach program to help minimize the risk of occupational noise exposure and prevent hearing loss. Specifically, outreach efforts will focus on employers and employees, trade associations, insurance carriers, and other organizations subject to the program. Outreach activities may cover presentations, webinars, letters or emails, and newsletters. Markedly, OSHA’s outreach approach will take place at least 9- days before inspections begin, with ongoing outreach thereafter.

Targeted Inspections

OSHA’s targeted industry inspections to help prevent hearing loss in the workplace will address hazards in “plain view,” or hazards that inspectors can readily observe without a warrant. Inspections will comprise of programmed (pre-selected) inspections for some establishments, complaint/referral inspections, and Certified Safety & Health Official (CSHO) referral inspections.

Duty to Help Prevent Hearing Loss

In the end, OSHA hopes that its regional emphasis program can remind employers within the manufacturing industry to follow existing safety standards that help prevent hearing loss. Employers must also educate workers on related hazards in order to reduce workplace illnesses and injuries. As OSHA Regional Administrator Jennifer Rous said, “This regional emphasis program will help ensure manufacturing employers … do what is necessary to protect their workers from exposures to excessive noise and prevent permanent hearing loss.”