What is the OSHA General Duty Clause?
OSHA’s General Duty Clause, in its entirety, reads:
“Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees."
—29 U.S.C. § 654, 5(a)(1)
This pivotal clause, crucial to the health, safety, and well-being of workers throughout the United States, can be found in the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 29, 1970. The act led to the formation of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), and was created to ensure employers maintain workplaces free of hazards and that employees enjoy safe working conditions.
The General Duty Clause, in particular, maintains that employers are legally obligated to provide workplaces free from hazards. These hazards may be recognized by the employer, by industry consensus standards, or through “common sense” as carrying the potential to cause serious physical harm or death.
When is the OSHA General Duty Clause invoked?
The clause is often the basis for a citation when hazards present in the workplace aren’t otherwise covered by OSHA standards.
For example: OSHA does not yet have a specific standard regarding ergonomics. Improper lifting tasks that lead to muscle and joint injuries, as well as repetitive motions that may cause carpal tunnel syndrome, can be cited under the General Duty Clause when employers don’t try to mitigate the hazards or protect workers from the impacts of those tasks.
What are the elements of an OSHA General Duty Clause Violation?
OSHA issued more than 1,500 citations for General Duty Clause violations in 2015. When can an employer be cited under the General Duty Clause, rather than another, more specific OSHA standard?
Several factors must be present for an employer to be cited under the General Duty Clause. Those factors include the following:
The hazard must meet OSHA’s basic definition of a workplace “hazard.”
A hazard is an object, condition, or practice that presents a potential source of injury or damage. Examples include a hot surface (which could cause burns), damaged electrical wiring (which could cause shocks or start a fire), or a heavy lifting task (which could cause back strains).
Additionally, employees must be exposed to the hazard in order to be cited under the General Duty Clause; if the hazard in question doesn’t directly impact or endanger employees, it may still be cited under another standard.
The hazard must be recognized as such.
For a hazard to result in a citation, it needs to be a recognized or known hazard. However, the employer does not need to have recognized the hazard to be cited for it under the OSHA General Duty Clause.
The OSHA Field Operations Manual states: “Recognition of a hazard can be established on the basis of employer recognition, industry recognition, or ‘common-sense’ recognition. The use of common sense as the basis for establishing recognition shall be limited to special circumstances.”
Recognition of a hazard may be supported in several ways, including:
- Earlier OSHA inspections of the same employer which covered the same hazard
- Documented employee complaints or grievances about a certain hazard
- An employer’s earlier corrective action
- Statements by safety or health experts familiar with the industry
- Studies conducted to demonstrate awareness of the hazard
- State and local laws that may have been in place to mitigate the hazard
- Equipment warnings and literature that reference the hazard
- National consensus standards from ANSI, NFPA, and other private organizations
“Common-sense” recognition may occur when, according to the OSHA Field Operations Manual, “a hazardous condition is so obvious that any reasonable person would have recognized it.”
The hazard is likely to cause physical harm or death.
This can be established when a death or serious injury actually followed an accident due to an existing hazard, or if serious harm or death would be likely in the event of an accident. Similar situations in other facilities are often used for comparison, allowing OSHA to rely on historical data.
The hazard may be corrected by a feasible method.
There must be a feasible, appropriate, and available method to correct the hazard or protect workers from the hazard. If something could reasonably have been done to resolve the problem and the employer failed to pursue that corrective action, then it makes sense to hold the employer responsible.
In determining whether corrective actions are feasible, OSHA inspectors may look at what the employer did or didn’t do to mitigate the risk, how other employers and companies accounted for the same risks, and what equipment manufacturers recommend for any hazardous equipment involved.
What are the limitations of the General Duty Clause?
The General Duty Clause is a far-reaching regulation, but it may not be invoked in certain cases.
Employers can’t be cited under the General Duty Clause when an already-existing OSHA standard covers the hazard in question, nor can citations be issued to impose stricter requirements than what’s outlined by a hazard’s OSHA standard. Instead, the employer will be held to the existing rule.
For example, if an employer didn’t provide fall protection for workers on an unguarded platform on an exposed floor 25 feet above a lower level, they would be cited under OSHA’s fall protection standard, rather than the General Duty Clause.
How can Graphic Products help ensure you follow the General Duty Clause?
Labeling and signage are key components of a safe workplace. Labels, signs, floor marking, and aisle indicators can warn employees of hazards and promote safe work practices. Some hazards can even be effectively mitigated with this information alone.
DuraLabel industrial label and sign printers by Graphic Products can assist in developing clear, custom visual communication. With several tough-tested printers and more than 50 specialty supplies, you’ll find the right tools to keep your employees safe and avoid hefty OSHA citations.
Graphic Products also provides on-site Compliance Assessment Services. The walk-through includes an audit of all safety, training, and violation reporting programs; an overview of potential OSHA violations—and how to mitigate those errors; and a thorough report with recommendations for a safer workplace.