Ambient noise defeated safety monitor’s effectiveness

by on February 24, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

If you use safety monitors for fall protection, they must be able to see – and talk with – the people they’re monitoring. That’s the compliance reminder that emerged from a recent OSHA case in Florida. Here’s what happened:

A roofing company was working on a large, multiple-building residential development. An OSHA CO happened to drive by on his way to work, and noticed a group of roofers working at third-story level, and near the edge of the sloped roof, without apparent fall protection. The CO took photos and then asked a site supervisor to send for the company’s Safety Director.

Problems with the system
The Safety Director explained that the crew was using a system of warning lines and a safety monitor – identified by his orange vest – instead of PPE, and argued that the system was effective.

The CO disagreed, for a number of reasons. First, the monitor, who was also the crew chief, was using a nail gun to fasten roofing felt, working bent over in a way that precluded him from paying attention to the other roofers.

Second, at least part of the time, the monitor was working behind the roof peak such that he couldn’t see the others.

Third – and the CO particularly stressed this point – there was a veritable circus of noise on the roof that made it impossible for the monitor to communicate with his co-workers, in case he had to warn them of impending danger. Contributing to the din were the noise of construction vehicles on the site, the roaring of traffic on a busy expressway adjacent to the development, and planes flying in and out of a nearby airport.

With all the noise, the monitor would have needed to be right next to the others to be heard, and the CO pointed out that he was more like 100 feet away when the CO made his observations.The CO issued a citation for a serious violation of the fall protection standard, and OSHA assessed a $5,000 fine. The company appealed.

The decision
On review, though, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission affirmed the citation and fine.

The Commission accepted the CO’s testimony that the noise level was such that the safety monitor and the rest of the roofing crew couldn’t hear each other speak. And this state of affairs violated the requirement of the standard – 29 CFR 1926.502(h)(1)(iv)(2009)e – that monitors be able to continuously and adequately communicate with the workers they are monitoring.

The Commission said to enable such communication, monitors must be within a reasonable distance of the other workers. And that distance takes into account the level of background noise.

Safety monitoring at height isn’t the only situation where it’s risky when employees can’t hear each other. Workers who can’t hear spoken or shouted warnings may walk under suspended weights, get in the path of moving machinery, or start up equipment that endangers co-workers.

If your workplace features high noise levels and/or if hearing protection interferes with normal communication, you may want to train your people in alternate means like radio or hand signs. Or, you could investigate the new generation of “smart” hearing protection devices that screen out ambient noise while enhancing speech.

Cite: Sec’y of Labor v. Latite Roofing & Sheet Metal, No. 09-1074, OSHRC.

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