OSHA took cabin noise jurisdiction from FAA
Rep. DeFazio asked GAO to assess pilots and flight attendants exposure
GAO finds levels within standards
Over five years ago, Secretary Foxx, assisted by Administrator Huerta, and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez began a process to redefine where the FAA may regulate and where OSHA may exercise its powers. Among the areas specified in this MoU was that OSHA standards apply to the working conditions of aircraft cabin crewmembers while they are onboard aircraft in operation. The rationale for the jurisdictional incursion was that the
“…FAA has not promulgated standards related standards related to the working conditions addressed by OSHA’s hazard communication… Similarly, although there are FAA regulations governing noise levels outside aircraft, FAA regulations do not address measures to promote hearing conservation for employees inside the aircraft; so, OSHA hearing conservation standards may apply there.”
The ranking Minority Member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure wrote to the Government Accountability Office asking that independent organization to:
provide information on noise levels experienced by crewmembers on commercial service aircraft and their access to hearing protection. We examined:
(1) what is known about aircraft cabin and cockpit noise levels compared with occupational noise exposure standards and
(2) selected airlines’ policies on hearing protection for crewmembers.
None of the studies GAO reviewed, which included eight that measured noise in the cabin and four that measured noise in the cockpit, found levels that clearly exceeded the OSHA standard, though two of the studies found that noise over long durations in certain types of aircraft may reach the more restrictive exposure limit published by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). OSHA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have received few complaints from crewmembers related to aircraft noise levels. For example, since assuming authority to enforce its noise standard in the cabin, OSHA has received two complaints related to ambient aircraft noise out of more than 600 complaints related to commercial aviation. No reports related to aircraft noise were submitted to four of FAA’s safety-related databases in the last 5 years. Also, over the past 5 years, the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), which is a safety database maintained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has received 10 reports about communications difficulties caused by normal ambient noise levels out of more than 26,000 total reports on safety incidents. Officials from the four aircraft manufacturers GAO spoke with said that they test cabin and cockpit noise levels in each new model of aircraft they produce and have found noise levels below OSHA’s standard. Officials from the eight selected airlines in GAO’s review said that they have conducted testing of cabin noise levels and have also found noise levels to be below OSHA’s standard. Officials GAO interviewed from the labor groups representing pilots and flight attendants told GAO that while noise levels likely do not exceed the OSHA standard, they believe crewmembers nonetheless are sometimes exposed to unsafe levels of noise that could result in fatigue or hearing loss. The policies reported by the eight airlines GAO spoke with regarding availability and use of hearing protection for pilots and flight attendants varied. FAA does not generally prescribe airline policies on hearing protection, other than specifying that hearing protection must not interfere with safety-related duties. Officials from all eight airlines said that they allow pilots to wear hearing protection such as earplugs or noise-reducing headsets, and officials from five of the airlines said that they allow flight attendants to wear ear plugs onboard the aircraft in operation. The GAO requested comments on a draft of this product from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Labor (DOL), and the Department of Transportation (DOT). HHS and DOL provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate, and DOT had no comments.
The Report did not include any recommendations for new actions/policies. Nor does the report include any contrary opinions from the Department of Labor, OSHA or NIOSH. One might conclude that the FAA’s past purview of the Aircraft Cabin Noise was not deficient.
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