The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is less than 30 pages long, and the regulations enforcing the law are just over 1,500 more. These laws and rules describe an employer’s obligation to provide a safe work environment for his or her employees, to eliminate hazards where possible, and to mitigate hazards that cannot be removed. But the Standards cannot cover every conceivable situation. So, if you are unsure how the workplace safety rules apply to your site, what do you do?
Letters of Interpretation
If you have a fair idea of what hazards you are dealing with, or which Standards may apply, you can contact OSHA and ask them what they think. The Administration will respond in a letter of interpretation, stating how the law applies to your case. OSHA keeps an archive
of these letters on its Web site, going back to 1972.
It is important to keep in mind several things regarding letters of interpretation. First, letters never replace regulations. An inspector will evaluate the circumstances at your workplace against the rule in 29 CFR, not the letter. It is also important to know that each interpretive letter is a response to a specific scenario and may not be fully transferrable to other situations or establishments.
Always review a body of letters for consensus and trends, but not necessarily actionable items.
Sometimes, OSHA doesn’t wait for you to ask them how to apply a Standard. Or the Administration get asked the same question often enough and decide to issue a “Compliance Directive.” While these Directives
technically tell OSHA inspectors what to look for at a site, employers can use them to know what the inspectors are interested in this year, and how to show it to them.
Safety & Health Topics
OSHA also publishes many other guidance documents, alerts, fact sheets, and references on how to comply with safety standards or to identify and mitigate occupational hazards for which there are no official Standards. These publications are organized under OSHA’s Safety & Health Topics
OSHA Quick Takes
Quick Takes is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s own semimonthly newsletter. With a free subscription
you can receive the latest news about workplace safety initiatives and compliance tools directly from OSHA.
The Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission (OSHRC)
is a unique Federal court that decides appeals to OSHA citations. The decisions of the OSHRC are not regulations or Standards, but like all court rulings they can have significant impact on how OSHA enforces its Standards and how regulated businesses are expected to comply.
It is always a good idea to review your research (letters, guidance documents, etc.) with your legal counsel before changing or implementing workplace practices to be sure that your plans are consistent with the statute and regulations and are defensible.