Understanding the importance of the intent of the OSHA standard.
We spend a fair amount of time fielding questions about confined space, fall protection and excavation safety. Most of time people describe a scenario and ask us whether we would consider it safe or compliant. Generally their questions hinge on an activity that is not directly addressed by the OSHA regulations.
As a trainer and consultant I rarely tell them that something is or isn't compliant (unless the answer is obvious) because the questioners may have omitted a key piece of information needed to make that determination . Instead I often try to provide them with a process for determining the answer on their own.
A first step in this process often involves understanding the intent of the OSHA standard they are trying to comply with. For example. the intent of the confined space standard (29 CFR 1910.146) is to implement the, ". . . requirements for practices and procedures to protect employees in general industry from the hazards of entry into permit-required confined spaces." So if a question comes up regarding the proper intervals for air monitoring or whether two confined space entrants can be attached to the same retrieval line, I try to figure out whether the practice being described meets the intent of the standard. For excavation and fall protection, the intent of these standards are also quite clear. In an excavation, workers cannot be crushed, drowned, or asphyxiated. Likewise for fall protection, workers must be protected from slips, trips and falls to lower levels.
Almost everyone who understands the basic concepts of safety realizes that blind adherance to the wording of a standard can, in some cases, create additional hazards that were not foreseen by those who actually wrote the standard. In these cases the employer is still obligated to develop the policies and procedures needed to accomplish the task while fulfilling the intent of the standard.
The reason for this is quite simple. Specifically, the General Duty clause requires employers to identify all job-related hazards and take corrective measures, and OSHA generally allows employers some degree of flexibility in developing the means and methods needed to protect workers.
In our experience, this generally requires an understanding of the intent of standard. If you meet this intent using sound safety practices you will, most likely, be safe and compliant.