Calling the citations against the company “an unprecedented interpretation,” a U.S. appeals court has thrown out a $490,000 OSHA fine against a company in a case where a lathe ejected a 12-pound workpiece that struck and killed an employee.
A lathe operator at Loren Cook Co. was killed when a rotating metal object broke free from the machine, flew at 50 to 70 miles per hour and struck the operator in the head.
OSHA issued a total of $511,000 in fines to Loren Cook, including seven egregious willful violations for failure to employ machine guards to protect workers from ejected workpieces. Each violation included a fine of $70,000.
OSHA cited 1910.212(a)(1) which governs 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.”
An administrative law judge of the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission determined section 1910.212(a)(1) didn’t apply to the case and vacated the 7 violations and $490,000 of the total fine.
The full Commission adopted the ALJ’s opinion.
Then, a panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Commission’s decision.
In the latest action involving the Loren Cook case, the entire 8th Circuit heard another appeal.
The court reversed the decision by its three-member panel, reinstating the Commission decision to throw out the violations and fines.
‘Strains common sense’
The majority on the court gave three reasons for its decision:
- “First, [OSHA’s] interpretation of section 1910.212(a)(1) strains a common-sense reading of the section,” the majority wrote. The regulation addresses two main categories: causes of the hazard, and by-products from routine operation of the machinery. Therefore, the court said catastrophic failure of the lathe, such as in this case, must fit one of those two categories. While the smaller 8th circuit panel equated the ejection of the workpiece to flying chips and sparks (by-products) mentioned in the regulation, the entire court rejected that argument. OSHA’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 the machine,” the court opined.
- OSHA “failed to provide any evidence showing that [it] has consistently interpreted section 1910.212(a)(1) to apply to the ejection of large objects from a lathe,” the court wrote. In fact, OSHA conceded that it had never before issued a citation like this one. OSHA “failed to produce a single citation, publication, or interpretation that could fairly be characterized as similar to the position the Secretary announced in the citation against Loren Cook,” the court said.
- “Finally, [OSHA’s] announcement of such an unprecedented interpretation in the citation against Loren Cook amounted to unfair surprise,” the court wrote. In 1982, the 2nd Circuit ruled in a similar case that the regulation didn’t apply to large objects thrown from a spinning machine. “After the Second Circuit issued its opinion … [OSHA] failed to issue a single citation proclaiming [the] current interpretation, amend the language of the section … or issue interpretative guidance,” the court noted.
For those reasons, a majority on the 8th Circuit concluded 1910.212(a)(1) didn’t apply in the Loren Cook case. The Commission’s decision is reinstated, and the violations and $490,000 in fines are thrown out.
Four judges dissented.
Now the ball’s in OSHA’s court. We’ll see what happens next in this case and what the agency might do regarding regulations or guidance involving machine guarding.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Did OSHA go too far in the Loren Cook case? Let us know in the comments.
(Thomas E. Perez, Secretary, United States Department of Labor v. Loren Cook Company, U.S. Circuit Crt. 8, No. 13-1310, 10/13/15)