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OSHA Letters of Interpretation

Last updated: September 26, 2018

What Does OSHA Letters of Interpretation Mean?

OSHA Letters of Interpretation (LI) are OSHA-issued letters that provide employers with supplementary guidance on how to apply OSHA’s rules, policies, and procedures to a specific workplace situation.

Although all OSHA LI are provided as responses to specific workplace questions from a particular employer, most of them are posted publicly for use by other workplaces and occupational safety professionals.

Safeopedia Explains OSHA Letters of Interpretation

Despite the name, OSHA directives state that letters of interpretation do not constitute legal interpretations of the OSHA rule framework, and thus they do not function as a method of establishing or expanding OSHA policy. Rather, they are used to explain OSHA policy as it pertains to a specific situation brought up by the questioner.

OSHA LI offer occupational health professionals and employers an opportunity to clarify the meaning of an OSHA rule and better understand how to comply with it. They do not create additional employer obligations but do explain what an employer’s additional obligations are.

Although LI do not create policy, they may be seen as doing so by occupational safety professionals because of the perception that they functionally establish the existence of a policy that previously may have been unclear. For instance, the U.S. National Safety Council’s Safety and Health magazine has referred to an OSHA LI that answered a question about the use of employee representatives during safety inspections as creating a new policy, referred to as the “walkaround rule,” rather than describing the letter as merely clarifying information about that policy. Because of this functional relationship to policy, OSHA letters have legal weight that may be considered by courts; in other words, a court may consider whether OSHA policy as described by a given LI is compatible with the limits set by the statutory laws that grant OSHA its authority.


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