Catastrophic Accident Resulted in a Workplace Fatality — Does Not Automatically Mean There Was an OSHA Violation

by Foley & Lardner LLP
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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is charged with enforcing the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA Act), and its various regulations intended to keep employees safe in their workplaces. Failure to comply with the regulations addressing machine guarding is one of the most-often issued citations by OSHA, routinely appearing in its “Top Ten” list of most frequently found violations. However, just because an employer suffers a catastrophic accident that results in the death of one of its employees, it does not mean that the company failed to provide appropriate machine guarding. At least, that is the lesson from a recent federal appellate court decision.

Loren Cook, a manufacturer of air circulating equipment, uses a number of varying size metal lathes to form and mold metal discs used in its manufacturing process. A lathe operates by rotating an object at high rates of speed, to which an operator will apply a work tool to shape the metal or other substance into individual work pieces.

OSHA regulation 1910.212(a)(1), addresses guarding requirements for machines. That regulation requires employers to use one or more methods to protect the operator and other employees in the machine area from hazards such as rotating parts, flying chips, and sparks. Barrier guards are the most common device used by employers with workplace machinery, including metal lathes, to comply with this machine guarding standard. A barrier guard is a device designed to keep the operator or other employees away from rotating machinery, and protect them from flying chips and sparks. However, most barrier guards are not designed to address a catastrophic accident where, for example, a 12-pound piece of metal comes loose from a lathe and strikes an operator in the head. This is exactly what happened, unfortunately, to one of Loren Cook’s employees in May 2009, at its Springfield, MO manufacturing facility.

OSHA cited Loren Cook with seven (7) violations of the machine guarding standard and assessed $70,000 for each alleged violation for a total fine of $490,000. Loren Cook challenged the citation, as it had a barrier guard in place on the lathe on which the accident occurred. The matter eventually ended up before the federal appellate court following multiple appeals by OSHA of an Administrative Law Judge determination that Loren Cook had not violated the machine guarding standard.

The federal appeals court affirmed the decision finding that Loren Cook provided machine guarding consistent with the requirements under the regulations. According to the court, some catastrophic accidents are simply never anticipated nor can they necessarily be protected from. Here, the large piece of metal tore through the guard that was designed to protect the operator from flying chips and sparks. The court noted that the OSHA regulations are intended to address routine risks of operation; not catastrophic lathe failures that result in the ejection of entire work pieces.

OSHA has been one of the Department of Labor (DOL) agencies that has been particularly aggressive over the past five to six years with respect to workplace safety enforcement. Safety is important in every workplace. However, not every accident can be attributed to an “unsafe” workplace or a company failure. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people, and employers may be called upon to show that they have acted in a responsible manner.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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