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OSHRC Refuses to Find Asbestos Exposure a Serious OSH Act Violation

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By Gabrielle Sigel

 

In Secretary of Labor v. ConocoPhillips Bayway Refinery, OSHRC No. 07-1045 (June 15, 2010), the Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission ("OSHRC") modified the judgment of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who had affirmed OSHA's citation of violations of the asbestos regulations as "serious violations." (Click here to read OSHRC's Decision and Order) In this case, Conoco employees were working in an underground pipeline when they chipped and cut through tar-like material containing asbestos at between 2 to 25%. OSHA found that Conoco had violated the "asbestos in construction" standard, 29 CFR ยง 1926.1101. OSHA characterized all of the violations as "serious," and the ALJ affirmed that characterization and assessed a penalty of $1,875 for each of the nine cited items.

OSHRC reversed the "serious" characterization, finding that OSHA had not proven that the 20-30 minutes of work on the coating around a pipe sleeve "could have generated, and exposed Conoco employees to, a harmful amount of asbestos." OSHRC Opinion at p. 3. The employees were found to be doing Class II asbestos work, which is "not presumed to generate any particular level of asbestos." Id. at p. 4.

Given that the Secretary of Labor had failed to introduce "case-specific evidence" of an exposure to a harmful amount of asbestos, OSHRC changed the violations' characterization to "other-than-serious" and reduced the penalty to $350 per violation.