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OSHA typically publishes dozens of letters of interpretation every year, but posted only four to their website in 2022. The most recent letters are dated from March and May of 2022, but did not appear on OSHA’s site until the last week of December.

Letters of interpretation provide official responses to employer questions about OSHA’s regulations. An employer might describe an injury and ask if OSHA considers it work-related for the 300 Log, or an employer might describe a lockout procedure and ask if it meets OSHA’s requirements.

The letters usually include a notice that OSHA’s response applies only to the circumstances described and might not apply to other situations. Still, employers gain a better understanding of how OSHA applies various standards in real-world situations.

Further, employers may rely on these letters to avoid a citation, or at least avoid a penalty. The Field Operations Manual (a handbook for OSHA compliance officers) notes that employers may receive a de minimis citation (no penalty) under certain circumstances, including when the employer “complies with a written interpretation.”

Needed guidance

From 2016 through 2019, OSHA published 34 to 45 letters each year. The year 2020 was unusually low, with only 17 letters, but 2021 rebounded with 32 letters. As noted, however, OSHA published only four letters in 2022.

Possible reasons for this decrease might include:

  • Few employers are requesting interpretations, so OSHA simply hasn’t received many compliance questions.
  • OSHA is sending responses to employer inquiries but has not yet published those letters on its website. Delays are actually common, and letters may appear months after their issue date (as with the March letter appearing in December). Potentially, OSHA will continue to publish 2022 letters during the first few months of 2023.

In addition to OSHA, other agencies under the Department of Labor have not issued recent letters either. For example, the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) enforces minimum wage and overtime laws but has not published any new opinion letters since January 2021.

During the Obama administration, OSHA continued to publish letters, but the WHD stopped issuing opinion letters from 2010 through 2017. Instead, the WHD issued a few “Administrator Interpretations” that laid out broad policy visions, but the agency refused to answer specific employer questions.

Key to remember: Letters of interpretation provide important regulatory guidance for employers, but OSHA (and other agencies) have published very few letters recently.