In September of 2019, OSHA responded to employers’ questions regarding the hazards behind headphones for music on construction sites with a letter of interpretation. One employer noted that some headphones were advertised as “OSHA approved” and wanted to know if the organization had any regulations related to the product(s). OSHA said that while it does not have a regulation that prohibits the use of headphones, the letter outlines many hazards and issues employers should consider if they allow the use of music headphones on site.
The letter first noted the existence of OSHA construction standards regarding noise exposure limits—and that, if those limits are exceeded, the employee must provide hearing protection to reduce noise levels below the exposure limits. OSHA made clear that music players and music headphones are not appropriate substitutes for hearing protection.
Next, the letter stated that headphones may be allowed at the employer’s discretion, but employers need to consider whether the use “creates or augments other hazards apart from noise.”
By this OSHA means that the use of headphones might interfere with a worker’s awareness to other onsite hazards, especially struck-by hazards. OSHA states that employers must make sure that employees “are not exposed to struck-by hazards while performing their work. Listening to music may produce a safety hazard by masking environmental sounds that need to be heard, especially on active construction sites where attention to moving equipment, heavy machinery, vehicle traffic, and safety warning signals may be compromised.”
Lastly, OSHA cleared the air on the reported “OSHA approved” headphones saying “OSHA does not register, certify, approve, or otherwise endorse commercial or private sector entities, products, or services.”
In summary, whether headphones use are allowed on construction site or not is the decision of the employer, but if the use of headphones would expose employees to potential hazards, like struck-by hazards, employers could still be liable for a violation of the general duty clause.
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