OSHA Standard Interpretations


Have you ever found yourself in a weird situation where you know the OSHA standard, but have a fairly unique situation where you’re unsure if you’re within compliance? Have you ever had a question in regard to record-keeping criteria on an odd recordable lost-time case that also involved days away? Have you ever had a situation where you have a position that might need PPE, but want more credible info to determine if PPE is required in an atypical task? Have you ever wanted more description on very specific standard, but just don’t know where to get quality references? If you said ‘yes’ to any of these questions, or have any similar situations to any of these examples, you should learn about OSHA’s Standard Interpretations.

OSHA, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, describes standard interpretations as “letters or memos written in response to public inquiries or field office inquiries regarding how some aspect of or terminology in an OSHA standard or regulation is to be interpreted and enforced by the Agency. These letters provide guidance to clarify the application of an established OSHA standard, policy, or procedure, but they may not, in themselves, establish or revise OSHA policy or procedure or interpret the OSHA Act.” As a safety professional, I find myself frequently checking OSHA.gov for standard interpretations on fairly unique situations to better assist companies. You, too, can look into these standard interpretations by going to OSHA.gov, selecting the drop down box “STANDARDS”, and following the “Standard Interpretation” link.

These letters are all created from real companies who have written to OSHA with question involving a real or possible situation and are asking OSHA for further clarification. After OSHA responds to the situation, they will publish the replies, in hopes to provide additional details and description on the standard that was referenced. This expansion on the standard cannot be used to hold any other company accountable for the additional detail, but can give companies more detail to help ensure they are within compliance.
Certain state programs have their own standard interpretations, as well. In Michigan, MIOSHA or Michigan OSHA, has MIOSHA Interpretations. These questions are asked in general settings or by submitting an “Ask MIOSHA” question. They are kept brief and rarely state a scenario and who the question comes from originally. Even still, these answers are very informative and help out when you may have a similar instance that someone may have already faced and reached out to their state program for further help and support. If you have a question in regard to a known standard and are not finding it within the standard interpretations, you may also check out MIOSHA’s FAQs where additional questions are asked. If you still do not find the help you are looking for, submit a question in writing to OSHA or electronically through the “Ask MIOSHA” LEO form, found on Michigan’s government website.

An example of a MIOSHA interpretation references sky lights. The question asks, “How close do I have to get to a skylight before it must be guarded?” MIOSHA states: “There are no distance requirements. Part 2, Rule 240(1) states, ‘A skylight guard shall be designed and constructed to withstand a 200-pound load that is applied perpendicularly at any 1 area on the screen.’” Not all questions and answers are this short.

It is okay to not know exactly what a standard is describing. Many standards are several years old and may use terminology that is no longer familiar. Utilizing the available resources, such as OSHA’s standard interpretations and MIOSHA’s interpretations can better help you and your company ensure compliance and safety for all staff. The more time spent on these websites, the more you come to find that although safety and health enforcement can be intimidating, those that enforce these laws and regulations are truly there to help and ensure that every worker goes home safely.

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