En banc Eighth Circuit rejects what it calls the DOL’s “hyper-literal interpretation” of a workplace safety regulation

Perez v. Loren Cook Co., No. 13-1310 (8th Cir. Oct. 13, 2015) (en banc). 

A 12-pound piece of metal was rotating on a large lathe. It broke free, flew off, and struck and killed a lathe operator. The Department of Labor fined the lathe operator’s employer under an OSHA regulation that requires guards around machines. These guards, says the regulation, must protect against dangers “such as those” created by contact with the machine, by rotating parts, by being nipped by the machine, or by flying chips and sparks. 

The employer argued that it hadn’t violated this regulation, and the en banc Eighth Circuit now holds that the DOL was unreasonable to apply the regulation to what happened here. The regulation gives several examples of the dangers it is designed to guard against, and none of them, according to the Eighth Circuit, are akin to what happened here: an entire workpiece flying off a machine. So the employer wasn’t given fair notice that the regulation could be applied to a situation like this. 

But the regulation protects against dangers “such as those” created by rotating parts. And isn’t the danger here similar to the kinds of dangers that can be created by rotating parts—which, like a workpiece, can sometimes fly off a machine in an accident? The Eighth Circuit responds that that is a strained and “hyper-literal interpretation” of the regulation. 

Judge Melloy, joined by three other judges, dissents. The DOL’s interpretation of its own regulation is entitled to deference—at least under existing law. And that interpretation, Judge Melloy argues, finds ample support in the regulation’s language.