The hearing protection industry did not particularly like the EPA’s tone at first.
Late last year, the government agency said it would release a proposal on establishing test methods of determining the noise reduction rating (NRR) for various types of devices, as well as a new labeling system, by the early part of 2009.
The 48-page notice did not surface until what many would consider the later part of 2009, Aug. 5, a time when industry associations like the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) were scrambling to get feedback from their members before the 30-day deadline hit.
EPA initially scheduled a public hearing on the proposal on Aug. 18, when the ISEA was expected to provide testimony and ask for an extension on the comment period. The forum will now be held on Oct. 7, with comments being accepted through Nov. 4.
“This gives us a little breathing room. It is hard to find people who are sitting in their office to give this thing some review,” Dan Shipp, president of ISEA, told Roads & Bridges.
“There is a lot of stuff to look at, and we just did not think that 30 days was enough time for a regulation that is going to change the way manufacturers determine hearing protection.”
The EPA has not been quick on its end. The current hearing protection standard was approved in 1979, and the process for revising the graying rules began in 2003.
The revisions stem from a fuzzy area when it comes to the accuracy of the NRR on a given device. Because there is not a governing body, like NIOSH, rating each piece of equipment, users were assuming 50% less protection than the provided NRR label.
A new ANSI standard did come out in 2008 on how the products should be tested and rated, and the EPA’s proposal recommends following ANSI’s lead, which, according to Shipp, offers two types of test methods. Method A uses workers experienced in using hearing protection. Method B uses the inexperienced.
At press time the ISEA was still gathering input from its members, but Shipp did have a short list of concerns already in hand, like where the products will be tested by these so-called experienced workers, what kind of labeling is going to go on the products, and whether Internet sellers will be able to provide hearing protectors with an electronic label.
“We also are looking at how they intend to set up the testing schedule and how often manufacturers will have to have their products tested,” Shipp continued. “We are looking at the way the labeling is set up and how useful that will be to the users.”
The short time window to report test results back to the EPA also might be a stumbling block. Right now, the proposal states that all data must be passed on within 10 days of the test.
Of course, rules and regulations are only as effective as the people enforcing them. Employers and/or safety directors are required to implement hearing-protection devices at the jobsite, and although earplugs and muffs may be worn by those directly affected by the decibels, like a jackhammer operator, workers surrounding the activity may not be covered.
OSHA enforces the use of personal protection equipment, and recently ISEA petitioned to reduce the permissible exposure limit of 90 dBa down to 85. Asked if OSHA strictly enforces hearing protection rules, Shipp told Roads & Bridges to check the watchdog’s citation history.
According to the OSHA website, .06% of the write-ups at the federal level posted between October 2007 and September 2008 dealt specifically with hearing protection.