OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards and regulations. Our interpretation letters explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances, but they cannot create additional employer obligations. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation of the requirements discussed. Note that our enforcement guidance may be affected by changes to OSHA rules. Also, from time to time we update our guidance in response to new information. To keep apprised of such developments, you can consult OSHA's website at https://www.osha.gov.

October 2, 2000

Ms. Jacqueline Nowell, Assistant Director
Occupational Safety and Health Office
United Food & Commercial Workers International Union
1775 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006-1598

Dear Ms. Nowell:

This is in response to your letter of August 2, 1999, regarding hearing protectors and who is responsible for paying for them. We apologize for the delay in this response.

The Occupational Noise Exposure Standard (1910.95) requires the employer to provide hearing protectors to all general industry employees exposed to an 8-hour TWA of 85 decibels at no cost to the employees. This requirement is explicit in the noise standard. The issues being addressed in the proposed revision of 1910.132 for personal protection equipment would not affect or in any way change provisions in existing OSHA standards that address who is to pay for particular PPE (e.g., respirators in health standards).

Not only must employers provide hearing protection to their employees at no cost to the employee, they must provide employees with the opportunity to select their hearing protectors from a variety of suitable devices. At the very minimum, a choice of at least one type of ear plug and one type of earmuffs must be provided (preferably more), since individuals may be more comfortable in one type than another. The employer must ensure proper initial fitting and supervise the correct use of all hearing protectors.

Hearing protectors must be replaced as necessary, and their replacement must also be paid by the employer. All types of personal protective equipment have a limited life span. The foam seal that surrounds the ear on earmuffs, the flanges on rubber earplugs, and body of foam earplugs, all lose their elasticity. As hearing protectors wear out, their attenuation properties are diminished; the head band on earmuffs also can relax so that the muff no longer provides a snug fit.

Although some foam plugs can be washed several times in mild soap and water, they should usually be changed every day or two, especially in dusty or oily environments. They should not be removed with dirty hands, if they are expected to be reused. Reinsertion of dirty plugs can cause ear infections. Plugs that cannot be cleaned must be replaced. The replacement requirement primarily relates to normal wear and tear, but it would also include situations where the nature of the workplace or the nature of an employee's duties makes some accidental loss of hearing protectors reasonably predictable.

However, as OSHA noted at the time of the promulgation of this standard, it would not condone either the reckless or deliberate damaging or loss of hearing protectors by an employee. OSHA also does not believe that employers should have to pay for an unlimited supply of protectors or replace protectors that are repeatedly lost due to employee negligence. However, as previously noted, a certain degree of loss through misplacement, particularly of ear plugs, should be expected.

Unfortunately, we do not have an accurate record of how often employers have been cited for charging their employees for initial or replacement hearing protectors. While the applicable paragraph, 1910.95(i)(1), that would normally be cited for this violation has been cited 407 times since 1983, this paragraph could also have been cited for failure to replace hearing protection. We have attached a memo that we are sending to the field to alert them of these issues.

Your final request was for OSHA to begin research, in cooperation with NIOSH, on the extent of hearing loss in SIC 20. OSHA unfortunately does not accumulate data on the extent of hearing loss. This type of research is best handled by NIOSH, and you should contact them directly.

I hope this answers your specific questions about hearing protection. We hope you find this information helpful. Please be aware that OSHA's enforcement guidance is subject to periodic review and clarification, amplification, or correction. Such guidance could also be affected by subsequent rulemaking. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact our [Office of Health Enforcement] at (202) 693-2190.


Richard E. Fairfax, Director
[Directorate of Enforcement Programs]

[Corrected 3/25/2004]