We are asked frequently by employers in the restaurant, delicatessen, and grocery industries whether OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Hand Protection regulations require the use of cut-resistant gloves for employees who work with knives or slicers. Some employers have even reported that OSHA representatives have told them that the use of cut-resistant gloves is mandatory for employees working with knives in food service. Whether food service employees in kitchens, delicatessens, or grocery stores are required to wear cut-resistant gloves, however, is not as clear-cut as OSHA has apparently been suggesting.
What is clear is that OSHA’s PPE standards are “performance-based” standards, not “specification” standards. What that means is, the PPE standards do not proscribe specific PPE for specific circumstances. Rather, the standards defer to employers’ reasonable judgment about what PPE is necessary, for which employees, in which circumstances.
The applicable standard, 29 CFR 1910.138(a), provides:
“Employers shall select and require employees to use appropriate hand protection when employees' hands are exposed to hazards such as those from skin absorption of harmful substances; severe cuts or lacerations; severe abrasions; punctures; chemical burns; thermal burns; and harmful temperature extremes.”
1910.138(a) is part of a series of standards regarding PPE for various parts of the body that stem from a general PPE requirement set forth at 1910.132(d)(1), which provides that:
Under the plain language of these regulations, and a long history of enforcement policies and OSH Review Commission case law, if employers perform a good faith hazard assessment in connection with the work activities and equipment at their workplace, and they conclude based on that assessment that employees are not exposed to laceration/amputation hazards or that cut-resistant gloves are not appropriate PPE, and the conclusion is reasonable, then no citation should issue.
A July 3, 1995 Interpretation Letter issue by OSHA confirms this view of the PPE standards:
“What the employer is required to do is to perform a hazard assessment, and OSHA would expect that an employer will be particularly careful before considering that none of its employees in the listed occupations are exposed to hazards which necessitated the use of PPE. In litigation, of course, it would be OSHA's burden to prove that a hazard assessment was not done. OSHA also believes that a standard of objective reasonableness is implicit in the requirement, and that accordingly, OSHA could cite for an unreasonable assessment. Again, the burden of proof would be on OSHA.”
Factors that will impact the reasonableness of an employer’s hazard assessment include:
- The existence of past injuries (i.e., look for lacerations or amputations on past OSHA 300 Logs);
- Employee input (e.g., employees generally dislike gloves in this context because they sacrifice feel and dexterity of their fingers in relation to the blade); and
- The presence of other controls that protect against cuts, such as administrative safe cutting procedures and training, or engineering and equipment controls.
Last year we wrote a post on the OSHA Law Update blog regarding one very significant, recent case impacting this PPE analysis -- Sec’y of Labor v. Petro Hunt LLC, OSHRCJ, No. 11-0873 (June 2, 2012).
By Eric Conn, Head of the OSHA Practice Group
We recently had an article published by the Washington Legal Foundation entitled "OSHA Continues Trend of Informally Imposing New Rules." The article expanded on an earlier post here on the OSHA Law Update Blog regarding OSHA's attempts to circumvent Formal Notice and Comment Rulemaking by changing regulatory requirements through interpretation letters, directives, and enforcement memoranda. Here is a link to the original post.
Below is an excerpt from the expanded article, published this week in Washington Legal ...
By Eric J. Conn, Head of the OSHA Practice Group
The deadline passed last week for OSHA to appeal a recent decision by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that struck down OSHA’s attempt to expand its Personal Protective Equipment (“PPE”) standard by way of an enforcement memorandum that mandated oil and gas employers ensure their employees don flame retardant clothing (“FRC”) during drilling operations (OSHA's “FRC Memo”). The Judge ruled that the FRC Memo constituted “improper rulemaking under the aegis of an enforcement standard.” See Sec’y of Labor v. Petro Hunt LLC, OSHRCJ, No. 11-0873 (June 2, 2012). The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (“Review Commission”) also declined to independently take-up the decision for review, so the ALJ’s decision is now officially a Final Order of the Review Commission.
The ALJ’s decision represents a meaningful victory for employers as it relates to any PPE enforcement action, not just those related to FRC. The ALJ chastised OSHA for attempting to circumvent the formal notice and comment rulemaking process required by the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), by issuing the FRC Memo rather than amending its regulations. Although OSHA did not appeal the Judge’s ruling, the Agency has expressed, through both words and actions, disagreement with the Judge’s ruling.
The Petro Hunt case arose out of an October 15, 2010 OSHA inspection at an oil production worksite in North Dakota, after the Sherriff’s Department notified the Agency that a fire engulfed a treater shed. Following the inspection, OSHA cited the employer for allegedly failing to provide and require employees to wear FRC. The employer contested the citation, and a hearing was held before ALJ Patrick Augustine in November 2011. In this case of first impression, the ALJ concluded that the FRC Memo did not simply interpret the standard but, rather, amounted to a new standard that should have been subject to the formal rulemaking process under the APA.
Judge Augustine reasoned that the FRC Memo transformed the PPE standard from a “performance-based” standard – which grants employers reasonable discretion to assess the nature of hazards at their workplaces and select appropriate PPE to address those hazards – into a specification standard – in this case, an obligation to provide a specific form of PPE (flame retardant clothing), during oil and gas operations “regardless of the particular circumstances that may be present at any individual facility.” In striking down the FRC Memo, the Judge stated:
Complainant cannot ‘require’ anything more than what is authorized by the regulations. If [the Secretary of Labor] wishes to specifically require that FRC be worn in all instances at oil and gas operations, then she must report to the required notice and comment rulemaking process. Otherwise, [OSHA] must independently prove in each case that Respondent had actual notice, or that a reasonable person in Respondent’s position would have recognized a hazard requiring the use of FRC.
The ALJ also rejected OSHA’s argument that the Review Commission should grant deference to OSHA’s interpretation in the FRC Memo, because, Judge Augustine explained, the interpretation was “unreasonable and inconsistent” with established regulations. The ALJ proceeded to vacate the citation, reasoning that OSHA failed to establish that the employer had actual notice of a need for FRC at the inspected worksite, or that a reasonable person familiar with the circumstances and industry would have recognized the existence of a flash fire hazard. To support his decision, the ALJ highlighted the following facts:
- OSHA’s failure to establish that flash fires were a hazard at the worksite;
- None of the employer’s employees suffered injuries due to fires in the previous two years; and
- The employer conducted a thorough hazard assessment, and reasonably concluded that engineering and administrative controls (methods of addressing hazards generally preferred over reliance on PPE), adequately addressed any potential fire hazard.
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