A colleague recently received a pair of noise cancelling headphones as a gift during the holiday season. In an office surrounded by the buzz of phones, printers, and watercooler discussions of the latest binge-worthy shows; I decided to mask my jealousy by researching the use of “noise cancellation” in the workplace. While there is no specific OSHA regulation that prohibits the use of headphones on a construction site or any other workplace; we ALL know the agency requires employers to protect employees subjected to sound levels exceeding the set permissible noise exposure limits. OSHA’s Hearing Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1926.101, requires that ear protective devices be provided by the employer and used wherever necessary to reduce noise levels below 85dBL.

OSHA has weighed in on the subject in a letter of interpretation that was issued in response to an employer’s query regarding its employees listening to music in this manner on a construction site.

In an Interpretation Letter entitled “Use of Music Headphones on Construction Sites,” acting Director Patrick J. Kapust, writes …” the use of headphones on a construction site may be permissible at managerial discretion, unless such use creates or augments other hazards apart from noise.” The letter goes on to say that “struck-by hazards are one of the four leading causes of death in construction. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure 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.”

Even in the absence of a specific regulation regarding use of headphones, employers still could face enforcement actions if OSHA finds that they have violated the General Duties Clause, requiring all employers to maintain safe workplaces.

It is not at all unusual for contractors to not allow their workers to listen to the radio or music on the job, much less through headphones or earbuds. It is important for workers to be able to hear equipment starting and stopping, warnings, alarms, and verbal directions from co-workers and supervisors. These concerns apply in many environments including heavy construction and manufacturing.

Although some manufacturers may claim that their products are “OSHA approved” or “100% OSHA compliant,” Kapust stressed that OSHA “does not register, certify, approve, or otherwise endorse commercial or private sector entities, products or services. Therefore, any such claims by a manufacturer are misleading.” ANSI is the agency that approves and rates products.

The key takeaway from OSHA’s interpretation letter is that employers must address employee use of headphones to listen to music on the worksite, even if there is not a specific OSHA standard prohibiting it. Employers should evaluate their worksites and determine whether a policy prohibiting listening to music on the job is appropriate.

If you have any questions regarding noise cancelling headphones or other safety-related concerns, please contact me at (919) 459-5240 or [email protected].