On September 6, 2019, OSHA issued a letter of interpretation in response to an employers question regarding the use of headphones to listen to music on construction sites. The employer stated that some headphones are advertised as “OSHA approved” and asked whether OSHA had any specific regulation that prohibits the use of headphones to listen to music on a construction site. While OSHA does not have a regulation prohibiting the use of headphones, the letter outlines several hazards and issues that employers should consider.

First, the letter advised that OSHA has a construction standard that sets noise exposure limits and that, if those limits are exceeded, the employee must provide hearing protection to reduce noise levels below the exposure limits. OSHA clarified that portable music players are not a substitute for proper hearing protection.

Next, the letter states that while headphones may be allowed at the employer’s discretion, employers must consider whether the use “creates or augments other hazards apart from noise.” OSHA was particularly concerned with the possibility that listening to music through headphones may expose employees working on construction sites to struck-by hazards. OSHA stated that employers must “ensure that employees are not exposed to struck-by hazards while performing their work. Listening to music may produce a safety hazard by masking environmental sounds that need to be heard, especially on active construction sites where attention to moving equipment, heavy machinery, vehicle traffic, and safety warning signals may be compromised.”

Finally, OSHA addressed the issue of headphones being advertised as “OSHA approved” by clarifying that “OSHA does not register, certify, approve, or otherwise endorse commercial or private sector entities, products, or services.”

The key takeaway from the letter is that employers must address employee use of headphones to listen to music on the worksite, even if there is not specific OSHA standard prohibiting it. If the use of headphones would expose employees to potential hazards, such as the struck-by hazards described in OSHA’s letter, employers could still be liable for a violation of the general duty clause. Given this, employers should evaluate their worksites and determine whether a policy prohibiting the listening to music on the job is appropriate.