The Supreme Court decided not to hear arguments for a case that sought to curtail the regulatory scope of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Supreme Court decided not to hear arguments for a case that sought to curtail the regulatory scope of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

Supreme Court rejects bid to gut federal agency

The order marked a rare victory for the federal government's regulatory powers in recent days.

The Supreme Court has declined to take a case that could have gutted a federal agency tasked with ensuring workplace safety, delivering a rare victory—particularly in recent days and years—for the federal government’s administrative powers. 

The court will not hear arguments in Allstates Refractory Contractors v. Su, a case that had sought to undermine and effectively disempower the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The judges did not state their reasons for refusing to take the case, though two of the justices on the panel—Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas—noted they would have accepted it. 

Allstates, with support of conservative groups and nearly half of U.S. states, has brought its case through the federal court system arguing OSHA’s mandate is overly broad and amounts to an unconstitutional delegation of power from Congress to the executive branch. OSHA had issued a fine against the contractor for the glass, metal and petrochemical industries after equipment at one of its facilities fell on and injured an employee. 

The petitioner had sought to block OSHA from enforcing workplace standards against any employer, arguing Congress had provided few limits on its power. The Biden administration rejected that argument, saying the law authorizing OSHA does not, as the petitioner asserted, give the agency “nearly unfettered discretion’ to make whatever workplace safety rules it wants.”

Instead, Justice Department lawyers said, OSHA has operated with a specific mission and federal statute created “meaningful guideposts” for the agency. 

They also highlighted the fallout that could result if the court had accepted the petitioner’s premise and upended the agency. Since OSHA’s creation, it said, the “incidence rates of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses have fallen significantly—from 10.9 cases per 100 full-time-equivalent workers in 1972 to 2.8 cases per 100 full-time-equivalent workers in 2018.”

In a dissent of the dismissal, Thomas suggested OSHA’s purview to issue workplace rules it deems “reasonably necessary or appropriate” could, in fact, amount to an unconstitutional delegation of power. Its power extends to virtually every business in the country, Thomas said, and ranges from oversight of power lawnmowers to the contact between trainers and whales at SeaWorld. 

“The Occupational Safety and Health Act may be the broadest delegation of power to an administrative agency found in the U.S. Code,” Thomas said. “If this far-reaching grant of authority does not impermissibly confer legislative power on an agency, it is hard to imagine what would.” 

Tuesday’s order marked the second time this year the court rejected a potential existential threat to a regulatory agency. In February, it ruled the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s funding structure was constitutional. In the intervening time, however, it issued a series of decisions that chipped away at key protections that regulatory agencies have enjoyed for decades. 

OSHA is likely to see another challenge to its authority in the coming months after it proposed on Tuesday a first-ever rule to protect workers facing excessive heat. Noting the impact of climate change, the agency said the rule would institute requirements for employers to identify heat hazards, develop emergency response plans related to heat and institute safety measures such as rest breaks and access to shade and water. OSHA estimated the rule would impact 36 million workers. 

President Biden last year announced the federal government would soon ramp up its efforts to respond to rising incidents of extreme heat, though many lawmakers and observers have called for his administration to do more. 

Within the federal workforce, rising incidents of extreme heat have been of particular concern for U.S. Postal Service employees. USPS allowed employees in some areas to start earlier in the day after an employee died of heat stroke while on the job last year, but employees said they were still feeling pressure to keep pace with their deliveries even when they felt unsafe doing so.   

Brian Renfroe, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, applauded the rule and said it would work in concert with the steps postal management has already implemented. 

“While progress has been made, a national rule that requires employers to provide comprehensive prevention is the ultimate solution,” Renfroe said, adding his union has worked closely with the Labor Department on the rule. “NALC fully supports implementation of this proposed rule.”