Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Limitation Precluding Exposure to Bright Lights -- What Does that Even Mean?

The case is McMahon v. Saul. The Ninth Circuit affirms the finding that McMahon could perform three occupations: document preparer, call-out operator, and final assembler. Experience tells us that this is a sedentary occupational base. We review the District Court decision to get the particulars. The District Court decision (titled Steven M. v. Andrew M. Saul but the representation line states his full name and that of his counsel) confirms that this case is about a younger individual with a high school education and no relevant work experience. The recitation of residual functional capacity

The ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing a range of sedentary work, with the following exertional limitations: he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can occasionally operate foot controls bilaterally. He can have occasional exposure to vibration, loud noise, bright lights, and extreme cold temperatures. He must use a cane when ambulating.

Two concerns arise from this residual functional capacity assessment.  First, the ALJ did not find any sitting limitation.  Many sedentary jobs do not have a work environment or list of duties that permit the accumulation of two hours of standing/walking during the workday – everyday.  When the agency fails to include a sitting, standing, or walking limitation, that omission violates the function-by-function assessment of Social Security Ruling 96-8p as the interpretation of the residual functional capacity assessment regulation. 

The second problem, and the focus of this post, is occasional exposure to bright lights.  What does bright lights mean?  If you know what that phrase means, then tell me that the ALJ and the vocational expert share your insight into the language.  The most common definition of bright lights from the web describe the lighting of a city at night, not very bright. 

The O*NET OnLine has a category for extremely bright or inadequate lighting.  General office clerks have exposure to extremely bright or inadequate lighting everyday in 5% of jobs.  That is the exposure to extremely bright lighting, not bright lighting. 

OSHA defines the minimum lighting required in different work settings. 





 Foot-Candles |            Area of Operation



5.............|  General construction area lighting.

3.............|  General construction areas, concrete placement,

              |   excavation and waste areas, access ways, active

              |   storage areas, loading platforms, refueling, and

              |   field maintenance areas.

5.............|  Indoors: warehouses, corridors, hallways, and

              |   exitways.

5.............|  Tunnels, shafts, and general underground work areas:

              |   (Exception: minimum of 10 foot-candles is required

              |   at tunnel and shaft heading during drilling,

              |   mucking, and scaling. Bureau of Mines approved cap

              |   lights shall be acceptable for use in the tunnel

              |   heading)

10............|  General construction plant and shops (e.g., batch

              |   plants, screening plants, mechanical and

              |   electrical equipment rooms, carpenter shops,

              |   rigging lofts and active store rooms, mess halls,

              |   and indoor toilets and workrooms.)

30............|  First aid stations, infirmaries, and offices.



We glean from this data that the brightest lighting occurs in three environments:  first aid stations, infirmaries, and offices.  If McMahon cannot tolerate bright lighting, then he cannot tolerate the workspaces that have the most intense lighting. 

We measure lighting in foot-candles as OSHA has done or in lux.  I found this chart:

Light Levels




Direct Sunlight



Full Daylight



Overcast Day









Deep Twilight



Full Moon



Quarter Moon



Moonless Night



Overcast Night




Staring at the sun will cause blindness.  Walking in the snow or ice with no eye protection getting full daylight and reflected sunlight will cause snow blindness. The need for eye protection in full daylight is not a workplace limitation.  That would represent a limitation to occasional work outdoors.  The limitation against bright lighting is something less than occasional work outdoors. 

Occasional bright lights constitutes a vague limitation.  Vagueness forms the proper basis for the objection to a question.  If the phrase is not defined linguistically, then the phrase warrants a definition technologically. 

Q.  When the judge asked you to assume occasional exposure to bright lights, what did you understand that phrase to mean?

Q.  When you study a work environment, do you ever measure lighting?

Q.  How do you measure lighting?

Q.  Does OSHA prescribe lighting standards for the workplace?

Q.  In what work environments does OSHA require the most lighting?

Q.  If we consider the highest level of lighting required, like in a first aid station, to represent bright lighting, could the person described in the question perform the three occupations that you identified?

Q.  Why would you ever answer a question that anyone poses where you do not understand the question asked?

Document preparer works in an office setting using a paper cutter, razor knife, and uses a photocopy machine.  Document preparer and bright lights are conjoined.  Call-out operator and final assembler warrant full-throated contradiction on the number jobs.  They do not exist. 

While we push the agency on the residual functional capacity question through the medical evidence that the testimonial evidence, we must continue the assault through step five on the existence of other work. 

Remember in law school, an injury claim from a defective product required a contract analysis, a negligence analysis, and a product liability analysis?  Same process here.  We use all the tools on the belt.  We don’t throw some of them away just because math is hard. 


Suggested Citation:

Lawrence Rohlfing, A Limitation Precluding Exposure to Bright Lights -- What Does that Even Mean?, California Social Security Attorney (April 20, 2021)  https://californiasocialsecurityattorney.blogspot.com/2021/04/a-limitation-precluding-exposure-to.html

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