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Appeals Court Rejects Challenge of OSHA’s HazCom Standard

“The court’s opinion is great news for those who want to hold chemical manufacturers liable for injuries to employees,” public-interest attorney Leah Nicholls said.

A federal appeals court has rejected a lawsuit filed by the American Tort Reform Association that challenged a small but important slice of wording in OSHA’s revised hazard communication standard.

The association asked the court to review Paragraph (a)(2) of the revised standard, which OSHA modified to explain that its chemical-labeling regulations do not preempt failure-to-warn claims filed in state courts. The association asserted that OSHA overstepped its legal authority and violated the Administrative Procedure Act by modifying the paragraph.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit did not agree, denying the association’s challenge in a Dec. 27 decision.

Leah Nicholls, an attorney with the public-interest law firm Public Justice, hailed the decision as a victory for workers who are injured as a result of mislabeled chemicals.  

“The court’s opinion is great news for those who want to hold chemical manufacturers liable for injuries to employees,” Nicholls said in a blog post.

OSHA updated its hazard communication standard in March 2012 to sync it with the United Nations’ chemical-labeling system. Once fully implemented, the agency estimates that the updated standard will prevent 585 injuries and illnesses and 43 deaths each year.

In the process of revising the standard, OSHA amended introductory Paragraph (a)(2) “to clarify that although state and local statutes, regulations and ordinances were preempted by – that is, they could not exist side-by-side with – federal regulation, state common-law claims about chemical labeling were not,” Nicholls explained in her blog post. 

“OSHA endorses the ability of employees injured because of inadequate chemical labeling to sue under state law to get damages for their injuries and, importantly, to prevent the same injuries from happening to other employees,” Nicholls said. “The fact that the D.C. Circuit held that OSHA’s endorsement stands will help persuade other courts that the existence of federal regulations does not prevent people from suing under state laws.”

However, she pointed out that “courts are still free to conclude that the existence of federal regulations means that no state-law claims can be brought.” 

“Battles here will remain,” Nicholls asserted.


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