OSHA expects all employers to take reasonable measures to protect workplace exposure to illness, accidents and fatalities. Fines, penalties and other repercussions can exist in instances where employers fail to do so.

What is the OSHA General Duty Clause? 

While you can’t possibly be prepared for every potential safety hazard that could arise on a typical work day, the OSHA General Duty Clause exists to ensure that employers take action against anything that threatens the health and safety of their workers. In cases where the threat is unusual, or at least unexpected, the General Duty Clause comes into play. 

The OSHA General Duty Clause definition can be found in this quote from Section 5 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970

“Each employer shall furnish to each of his employee’s 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; shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act. Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.” 

Wow. Wordy, huh? 

Let’s break it down a bit. What does the OSHA General Duty Clause require employers to do?

To put it simply, if a hazard exists that has either a history of or a good chance to injure, kill, or cause any level of serious physical harm, it’s your duty to take care of it. It doesn’t matter if that’s a nasty case of the flu that’s going around or Godzilla coming back and seeking his revenge – as the employer, that’s on you. 

An important thing to remember here, though, is that your employees bear just as much responsibility. Their obligation lies in following the standards, rules and regulations laid out by not only OSHA, but you as their employer. 

So, when can an OSHA compliance officer cite the General Duty Clause? 

General Duty Clause citation requires that a number of conditions be met before action can be taken. Current OSHA General Duty Clause example situations include:

  1. There must be a hazard 
  2. The hazard must be recognized 
  3. The hazard causes or is likely to cause serious harm or death 
  4. The hazard must be correctable 

Here are some common general duty clause violations: Heat stress, damaged equipment that could cause injury or death, and improperly stored boxes on shelves that could fall.

First, OSHA will need to determine whether or not a hazard exists, and if it is affecting employees in the workplace. If the situation is as clear-cut as that Godzilla scenario we mentioned above, this would be an easy “yes”. 

Whether or not the hazard in question is recognized and whether or not it caused serious harm or death are both pretty straightforward qualifiers as well, so let’s go ahead and assume that the answer to both of those is “yes” in this case. 

Now, for the tricky part. Is the hazard correctable? 

If you can’t feasibly think of anything that could’ve been done to correct the problem, you might have an out – at least in this case.

The General Duty Clause has been used in a way that the writers of the Act might not have even anticipated with the rise of COVID-19 and the specific set of health and safety concerns it brings to the table. Now more than ever, it’s critical to keep OSHA standards in mind, and to always be prepared for an OSHA inspection, not only to save money and time but to ensure a safe working environment for your employees and team members. 

Don’t let COVID-19, an unexpected attack from an ancient reptilian, or anything else threaten the health and safety of your workers. Protect your business and your reputation with Berg.

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