Headphones, earbuds and OSHA standards

January 6, 2020

Whether used for air travel, at sporting events, or during workouts at gyms, the popularity of headphones and earbuds has rapidly spread. But are they appropriate for the workplace? Prompted by an employer’s questions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) addressed headphone use by employees while on the job.

In this particular instance, employees of a construction company were wearing headphones with noise-limiting capabilities while working. Some of the headphones were marked “OSHA approved” for use in the workplace. When the employer inquired as to whether there were regulations covering the use of headphones to listen to music at the jobsite, OSHA weighed in on a number of issues.

Headphones: protection or distraction?

For construction sites, federal regulations set maximum, permissible noise limits. If noise levels at a site exceed those maximum limits, the employer is responsible for providing its employees with ear-protective devices. According to OSHA, music headphones generally are “not a substitute for hearing protection.” Further, OSHA does not endorse commercial products. OSHA advised the employer that a claim by a manufacturer that its music headphones were “OSHA approved” was misleading.

OSHA went on to note that there were no regulations specifically prohibiting the use of headphones by employees while working on a construction site. Whether to permit such use is left to the employer’s discretion; however the company should exercise that discretion carefully. In the construction industry, “struck-by” hazards are one of the leading causes of workplace deaths. Listening to music on headphones could mask the sounds of moving equipment, traffic or audible safety signals and increase the chances of struck-by accidents.

The takeaway

If your workplace has noise levels that exceed OSHA standards, music headphones and earbuds are not a substitute for more traditional forms of hearing protection. Further, when deciding whether to permit employees to listen to music with headphones, consider the potential for distraction and the masking of sounds that raise safety concerns.

  • September 6, 2019 Interpretation Letter (Acting Director P. Kapust)