Every month, OSHA issues a number of letters of interpretation about its standards and policies. Some of them even make headlines. These letters do not have the force of law, but they offer insight into how an OSHA standard or policy may be applied by an OSHA inspector who comes knocking at your door. In this article, I’ll list the all-time “Top Ten OSHA Letters of Interpretation” — in my opinion — and explain why these letters are important.

Of course, a list like this is highly subjective. Make a list of the ten all-time most successful American Olympic athletes. Many of us would name Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, and Mark Spitz, but even at the top, the list is highly arguable.

Also, for this article I didn’t include injury and illness recordkeeping letters. That’s a separate article!

1 The Temporary Worker

April 30, 1996, to Martin Lev

Many employers use temporary employees from employment agencies. This letter describes the responsibilities for training, medical monitoring, personal protective equipment, recording injuries and illnesses on the OSHA 200, and reporting fatalities and catastrophes for temporary workers. It will make you coordinate more closely with your temporary agency.

2 The Four-Minute Rule

March 30, 1993, to Charles Marvin

For the first 23 years of OSHA’s existence, many of us interpreted the term “near proximity” in 1910.151(b) as 15 minutes. If your facility was not in “near proximity” to a clinic or hospital, you were required to have employees trained to render first aid.

In this letter, OSHA states that “near proximity” is three to four minutes if life-threatening injury or illness can be expected, such as suffocation or severe bleeding. That definition will include most manufacturing sites and many government agencies.

This letter was also used to establish the basis for response time to initiate rescue in permit-required confined spaces until other guidance came along. Also, we realized that if we were required to have trained first aid responders to meet the four-minute rule, the bloodborne pathogens standard would apply to more of us.

This letter is a heavyweight!

3 The LOTO Letter

September 19, 1995, to Lawrence Halprin

This letter suggests that you may not have as many energy control procedures as you think you do. You are permitted to have generic energy control procedures and checklists for specific pieces of equipment. This is important when trying to meet 1910.147(c)(6) regarding the annual inspection of each lockout/tagout procedure.

4 The Seat Belt Letter

March 7, 1996, to Robert Walker

This letter is major league also. If your powered industrial truck comes with seat belts, they must be used. If your powered truck did not come with seat belts, you must take advantage of any retrofit seat and seat belt offered by the powered truck manufacturer. I’ve seen this requirement cited under 1910.132(a), but most often the General Duty Statute — OSHAct Section 5(a)(1) — is applied.

Click it or ticket!

5 The Inspection of Home Offices

November 15, 1999, to T. Trahan

You remember this one: National headlines. Congressional inquiry. OSHA’s opponents got a little carried away with this letter, but the agency never intended to inspect home offices. Home-based manufacturing with serious hazards? Yeah, OSHA may inspect those, but not home offices.

If you look past the negative hype, this letter provides darn good guidelines for an employer to improve the safety and health of a worker at home. (Equally interesting is the letter soon afterward that rescinded this letter!)

6 The Consensus Standard Update Provision

July 15, 1993, to Richard Wertenberger

This letter is a big help to us. In the fifth paragraph, OSHA clarifies its policy found in the Field Information Reference Manual that the most recent revision of a consensus standard (such as 1999) can be followed as long as equal or greater protection is offered compared to the consensus standard originally incorporated by reference (such as 1968). This is an efficient way to address changing technology and hazard awareness.

7 The Oxygen/Fuel Gas Cylinders Separation Interpretation

August 28, 1995, to R. Davis Layne; December 31, 1998, to Steven Dineen; and June 22, 1998, to William Principe

This is a three-for-the-price-of-one deal. Many of us had always wondered when oxygen and fuel gas cylinders were “in use” and when they were “in storage.” Also, we thought that one-quarter-inch steel plate offered a one-half-hour fire-resistant wall between these cylinders.

Well, these letters may surprise you. A steel plate one-quarter-inch thick by itself is not acceptable. In addition, if gas is not expected to be drawn from the cylinders in the next 24 hours after use, these bottles are in storage, even though they may still be on the cart.

NOTE: The June 22, 1998, letter appears to have been rescinded, but it’s still insightful. The other two letters are still in effect.

8 The Double-Bar Gate Rule

June 15, 1992, to Congressman Tom Delay

Whew! This letter uses five OSHA standards — 1910.23(c)(1), 1910.23(a)(2), 1910.23(e)(3)(v)(c), proposed 1910.28(b)(6), and 1910.5 — a National Bureau of Standards study, and several ANSI standards to advise us that chains and single-bar gates across the openings of fixed ladders are not acceptable.

Fixed ladders that lead to a platform where people are working and could fall back through the ladder opening should be protected at the ladder opening by a side-hinged swinging double-bar gate. Of course, this brings up the question of violating the egress standard where the egress must swing in the direction of exit travel in some cases. Anyway, this is good material for debate.

9 The Respirator User’s Letter

December 2, 1998, to William Kincaid

This letter clarifies a couple of issues. First, it clarifies OSHA’s policy that employees are allowed to refuse to participate in medical evaluations, but, of course, if the employer allows this, the employee can’t be allowed to wear a respirator or to work in an area where respirators are required.

In other words, requiring medical evaluations as a condition of employment is between you and your employees. If you don’t require the medical evaluation, you can’t expose the employee.

The second point of this letter is that, at the moment, there is no First Amendment protection (in OSHA’s eyes) for employees who — for religious reasons — want to wear a beard with a face-to-facepiece respirator. In other words, no facial hair is permitted with a tight-fitting respirator.

As an additional bonus to the readers of this article, another letter of interpretation defined facial hair as more than one day’s growth.

10 The Computer-Based Training Letter

January 15, 1999, to Nancy Wickler

This letter specifically responds to questions about bloodborne pathogens, but it is important for all safety and health computer-based training.

First, it says that trainees must have an opportunity to ask questions and receive answers during the training.

Second, it says that the trainer is not required to be present during the training but can be available by telephone or e-mail to answer questions.

Third, if questions are asked electronically, the trainer must be available for interactive online exchange when the question arises.

Surely you can’t argue with my top ten choices or my interpretations of these letters! But I hope you do because it creates awareness about hazards and their proper controls.

Most of these letters are available from OSHA’s Web site at www.osha.gov. If you have trouble getting them, e-mail Shayne at 110225.1236@compuserve.com and she will e-mail you the entire package.