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Pet goods supplier Chewy wins challenge to OSHA fine over worker death

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court has ruled that pet supply retailer Chewy Inc did not violate federal workplace safety law by failing to prevent a forklift accident that killed a warehouse worker, and threw out a fine against the company.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday said the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) could not fine Chewy for violating its “general duty” to maintain a safe workplace because it had complied with a specific rule regulating forklifts.

OSHA fined Chewy about $13,000 in 2019 after an employee at an Ocala, Florida warehouse drove a forklift underneath a shelving unit and was crushed. Another worker had been injured in a similar incident a few months earlier.

Florida-based Chewy did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did OSHA, a part of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Federal law gives OSHA the power to adopt workplace safety standards, such as a rule requiring that forklift operators receive safety training, while also imposing a general duty to protect workers when a specific rule does not apply.

Chewy said it had provided the required training, and OSHA did not allege otherwise. But the agency found that Chewy violated the general duty by allowing “under-rides,” where forklifts drive under shelving units.

An administrative judge last year upheld the fine, saying the forklift rule did not apply to the case because it did not address under-rides. That meant OSHA could fine Chewy for violating the general duty, the judge said.

Chewy appealed and the 11th Circuit on Tuesday sided with the company.

OSHA regulations and previous cases brought by the agency make clear that adequate forklift training includes a discussion of the risks associated with under-rides, Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote. That means the OSHA rule does apply and preempts the general duty, the judge said.

The panel included Circuit Judges Robert Luck and Frank Hull.

The Retail Litigation Center in a brief backing Chewy said retail companies have generally found that eliminating under-rides is unnecessary and can actually increase the risk of forklift accidents.

“The retail industry as a whole lacked notice of the engineering reconfiguration requirements that OSHA now alleges are mandatory,” the group said.

The case is Chewy Inc v. U.S. Department of Labor, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-11626.

For Chewy: Thomas Metzger of Littler Mendelson

For OSHA: Amy Tryon of the U.S. Department of Labor


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