In late 2019, OSHA released a letter of interpretation in response to employers’ questions regarding the rapidly increasing use of headphones on construction sites. The convenience, simplicity, and decrease in price of wireless headphones have made them wildly popular. Manufacturers and advertisers have taken advantage of that popularity to advertise wireless headphones as having features appealing to workers, such as volume-limiting capabilities and noise-canceling capabilities, and even promoted them as ear protection devices. These products, however, also have the ability to play music, podcasts, videos – anything that can be watched or listened to via a Bluetooth device.
To better appeal to workers, some manufacturers have gone as far as to advertise their products as “OSHA approved”. Employers subsequently sought clarification and guidance on whether use of headphones on job sites is prohibited by OSHA regulations.
In its response, OSHA noted there is no regulation that prohibits the use of headphones on a construction site. Employers are required by 29 CFR 1926.52 to provide employees subject to sound levels exceeding these limits with ear protective devices. No noise exposure can exceed those limits.
However, OSHA did not end its answer there. OSHA noted that while headphone usage may be “permissible at managerial discretion,” such usage may “create” or “augment” other hazards, and provided specific examples of anticipated hazards. The letter of interpretation noted that struck-by hazards are one of the four leading causes of death in construction. Employers are responsible for ensuring that employees are not exposed to struck-by hazards. OSHA cautioned that listening to music can mask environmental sounds that need to be heard, including sounds of equipment and machinery at use and in movement, vehicle traffic, and warning signals. OSHA further noted that the body does not register, certify, approve, or endorse any products, and there are no “OSHA approved” products of any kind.
Employers must be keenly aware that employee exposure to potential hazards is heightened by distraction and/or dulling of the senses (like music headphones or even noise-regulating/canceling headphones) and must regulate usage accordingly. Employers will be liable for a violation of the general duty clause if headphones-wearing employees are exposed to the hazards outlined in the letter. Employers should evaluate their worksites and consider whether issuing a policy that bans headphone usage is appropriate.