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OSHA withdraws workplace noise rule interpretation after opposition

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Indiana Lawyer Focus

When it comes to workplace injury, most envision a dangerous fall or an equipment or structural malfunction leading to broken bones, pulled muscles, strained backs or head injuries. But one often overlooked and potentially devastating injury is hearing loss resulting from high noise levels in a workplace.

The issue isn’t one that Indiana lawyers specializing in worker safety and employment law have missed. Recent news reports have put noise-level issues on the forefront and tie them into a larger discussion of how the federal occupational safety agency writes or changes rules dictating how attorneys advise their clients.

“This was a real significant issue for those lawyers who deal with OSHA, because if they pushed this through to change the workplace noise interpretation then that could change the game for everyone else,” said Fort Wayne attorney Mark Kittaka, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg.

Attorneys representing the business and worker sides differ on whether this would be a beneficial change, but they do say that what is happening in the workplace safety arena warrants more review by everyone.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) withdrew its proposed change to workplace noise standards that would have toughened employers’ requirements on those workplace noise situations by clarifying the phrase “feasible administration or engineering controls” within its rule.

If adopted, the proposal would have essentially resulted in employers having to adopt increased safety measures to protect the hearing of employees rather than just providing them with ear protection gear, such as ear phones.

The administration contended that if something was feasibly possible, even cutting-edge technology that might not be widely available, then it could be required under the new interpretation.

Employers and attorneys mulling what that new interpretation would have meant found it could have resulted in high-cost building modifications or equipment changes in how work is actually done in these sites. Some would have cost more than what it costs to buy hearing protection to help shield workers from the noise, they said.

OSHA first published its new interpretation of the noise rule terminology in the Federal Register in October 2010, and in December it extended the public comment period for three months. Federal officials contended this wasn’t a rule change but rather simply a new interpretation, while opponents in the business community argued it circumvented the administrative rule-making process and had the potential to go beyond just hearing loss issues in the workplace.

“This wasn’t going through the formal rule-making process and wasn’t really a change in regulation that’s out there, it was just an interpretation of an existing rule that could have been expanded greatly and been huge in workplace compensation and employment law,” Kittaka said. “That’s a crazy difficult standard for feasibility and would impair companies, but if they can do this for hearing loss compensation then that standard could be applied to many others OSHA issues.”

Almost immediately after the proposal was published, it sparked criticism from various industrial and trade groups who viewed it as a costly measure that would require them to make extensive and unnecessary changes – possibly requiring noise-dampening equipment or other expensive technologies. Employers argued this would likely hit the economy hard because some businesses would have to lay off employees or possibly close.

OSHA explained that the noise proposal was a result of concern about continued high levels of hearing loss among workplace employees. This is despite statistics that Indiana lawyers say show the number has decreased by a third between 2004 and 2009.

“The numbers just don’t show that this should be a concern, and so the question is why they would make this change on something at a time when these injuries are getting better statistically,” Kittaka said.

Now, the federal agency is exploring how to address the hearing loss issue without incurring these types of significant costs.

Though the proposal has been scrapped, Hoosier attorneys worry that it could return in some form or that it’s part of a larger push to revise the broader rule-making process.

Kittaka said the big concern is that OSHA is overreaching and that can be bad for the economy.

Carmel attorney John Daly, who handles construction site law and teaches OSHA courses, said he sees the point of trying to eliminate the potential of hearing loss claims in the first place.

“If you can design out a hazard, that’s the best way to go because you can avoid it all together down the road,” he said. “You’re not just adapting and responding to it. The rub is what’s ‘feasible’ and that’s where the employers say it’s too expensive … and that’s where you move to the battleground. It’s not like this was some radical decision, because in reality a problem is that workers just don’t wear the ear protections they’re given.”

Daly’s professional experience has made him aware of other issues impacting workplace injury as a result of using hearing equipment. In some cases, employees couldn’t communicate adequately or handle a situation to prevent an injury, as they might have been able to do without ear protection.

“You can tell which way the political winds are blowing based on how much emphasis is placed on interpreting the rules,” Daly said. “That’s what happened here. The thing about OSHA is that they have police duties, but can’t be everywhere and have to come in and enforce after the fact rather than trying to prevent this from the start. That’s where you need contractors and employers to know the rules and enforce them.”

His law partner, Matt Golitko, chair of Indiana Trial Lawyers Association’s workers’ compensation section, said these types of hearing loss claims are so few that it didn’t seem like it should be a priority for the federal agency. In his 11 years of practicing workers’ compensation at high volume, he’s had less than five of these. Those clients suffering from workplace hearing injuries are employed at places such as factories and loud construction sites, he said.

“Generally speaking, anytime we can eliminate the risk of injury to an employee, that has a benefit to everyone,” Golitko said. “If we take those issues away, you’ll have even fewer hearing loss claims and that would in turn have a good effect on an employer’s rates with insurance companies.

“But whether it would play out that way in reality, because of the costs that would be involved here, is a different question. Indiana is still one of the best places to have a business because our worker compensation laws are as good here as anywhere in the country.”•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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