• U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Reasonable Interpretation of Safety Regulation Trumps Conflicting Interpretation of OSHA Review Commission
  • May 21, 2014
  • Law Firm: Sutherland Asbill Brennan LLP - Washington Office
  • Where the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s interpretation of a safety regulation conflicts with the OSHA Review Commission’s interpretation, the Secretary of Labor’s interpretation governs as long as it is reasonable. The Eighth Circuit confronted this question in reviewing conflicting interpretations of a safety regulation governing requirements for machinery guarding, 29 C.F.R. § 1910.212(a)(1). Specifically, the Secretary of Labor charged an air circulating equipment manufacturer with multiple violations of this regulation and issued a proposed fine of $490,000 following an incident in which a 12-pound workpiece broke loose from a small lathe, shot out, and killed the lathe operator.

    Following a 20-day hearing, an ALJ concluded that the text of the regulation only required guards on the lathes to prevent debris or waste material from being ejected, but that it did not apply to guarding against the ejection of the actual item being worked on, and dismissed the proposed violations. After the OSHA Review Commission declined further review, making the ALJ’s decision a final order of the Commission, the Secretary petitioned to the Eighth Circuit for review. Based on the 1991 U.S. Supreme Court case of Martin v. OSHA Review Commission, the Eighth Circuit concluded that as long as the Secretary’s proffered interpretation of a safety regulation was reasonable, that interpretation trumps a conflicting interpretation from the Commission. The court, in a 2-1 opinion, went on to find that the Secretary’s interpretation that this regulation was not limited to protections only against ejected debris rather than workpieces or to situations involving normal machine operations was reasonable given the plain text of the regulation.