By James L. Curtis and Craig B. Simonsen

In this machine guarding case, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that OSHA’s Machine Guard Standard protects from debris or waste material, and from the actual piece being worked on. Perez v. Loren Cook Company, No. 12-1310, (8th Cir. May 9, 2014).

The Eight Circuit reversed and remanded the machine guarding question back to the Occupational Safety Health Review Commission. The employer, Loren Cook Company, a manufacturer of air circulating equipment, used lathes to shape metal discs into parts. The lathes held a workpiece that would be lubricated and rotated rapidly as a worker applied tools to bend and shape the spinning workpiece. Lathes of different sizes were used to form workpieces of different sizes. Large lathes employed barrier guards to protect workers from ejected objects. In the  past, the small lathes had also employed guards, but over the last few years the guards had been removed from the small lathes.

In this incident a workpiece that was being tooled in a small lathe broke loose, shot out, and struck a lathe operator, killing him. Although the parties had disputed the frequency of similar ejections of workpieces that occurred in the past, it was undisputed that prior workpiece ejections had occurred.

The Secretary determined that the Machine Guard Standard required the small lathes to have guards to protect workers from ejected workpieces. Numerous willful citations with fines of $70,000 per violation were assessed, resulting in a total fine of nearly $500,000.

After a twenty day hearing, the Administrative Law Judge concluded that the cited rule, §1910.212(a)(1), did not apply in the context of the present case. According to the ALJ, the regulation only required guards on the lathes to prevent “debris or waste material” from being ejected. The rule did not apply to guard against the ejection of the actual item being worked on, i.e., the ejection of the actual workpiece.

The Commission declined further review of the matter, and so the ALJ’s decision became a final order of the Commission. The Secretary appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Eighth Circuit.

The Eighth Circuit concluded that the Secretary’s interpretation of the regulation was reasonable, and because controlling Supreme Court precedent required deference to the Secretary when the Secretary and the Commission adopt competing reasonable interpretations, “we must defer to the Secretary rather than the Commission.”

This case is an illustration for employers as to the difficulty in attempting to draw conclusions and interpretations of OSHA regulations based on the language of the regulations themselves. In the instant case, the wording of the Machine Guarding Standard proved to be vague and undecipherable when applied to the facts of the case — leading even an OSHA administrative law judge to conclude that the Standard did not apply. Thus employers must take a very broad reading of the standards in order to prevent being second guessed by OSHA.