Ohio OSHA Law Blog

by Meyers Roman Friedberg & Lewis

Federal court slaps down OSHA’s broad interpretation of its machine-guarding standard

Machine guarding is the low hanging fruit of any OSHA investigation in a manufacturing facility. Because guarding falls under OSHA national emphasis program on amputations, it will be part of any OSHA investigation. And, when a machine isn’t properly guarded, it sticks out like a sore thumb to any OSHA investigator. Citations and penalties are sure to follow, along with the expense of remediation and the burden of repeat OSHA visits.

This begs the question—when does a workplace injury result from an improperly guarded machine under OSHA’s standards?

In Perez v. Loren Cook Co. (8th Cir. 10/13/15), OSHA fined an industrial manufacturer $490,000 for failing to employ barrier guards to protect workers from ejected workpieces. The fines followed an industrial accident in which a lathe ejected a 12-pound rotating metal piece at a speed of 50 to 70 miles per hour, striking a lathe operator in the head and killing him.

In issuing its fine, OSHA relied on section 1910.212(a)(1), which provides:

Types of guarding. One or more methods of machine guarding shall be provided to protect the operator and other employees in the machine area from hazards such as those created by point of operation, ingoing nip points, rotating parts, flying chips and sparks. Examples of guarding methods are-barrier guards, two-hand tripping devices,electronic safety devices, etc.

On review, the 8th Circuit vacated the penalty as an overly broad interpretation of that guarding standard. In attempting to uphold the penalty, the Secretary of Labor argued that section 1910.212(a)(1) covers any injuries that result from lacking or inferior guarding. The 8th Circuit, however, disagreed, concluding that this standard “contemplates hazards from rotating parts related to the operator’s contact with the machine”, not hazards from the ejection of objects.

The hazards that a lathe’s rotating parts create—much like the hazards from point of operation and nip points—result from contact with the lathe, including the danger of an operator’s clothing, limbs, or hair becoming caught in or struck by the rotating parts. This limited interpretation of rotating parts is consistent with OSHA’s machine guarding interpretative guidance.…

The Secretary’s hyper-literal interpretation of a hazard created by “rotating parts” defies logic and seems to permit section 1910.212(a)(1) to apply to virtually any situation, no matter how remote or atypical, in which a hazard can be tied to some movement on a machine. The guarding devices section 1910.212(a)(1) enumerates … would do little to prevent the hazard for which the Secretary cited Loren Cook: the high-speed ejection of a workpiece nearly 3 feet in diameter and weighing 12 pounds.

OSHA Area Directors apply their own interpretations of OSHA standards. This decision is clear reminder that federal courts act as a stop-gap on OSHA’s interpretative powers, and that employers have remedies available from unfair penalties.

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