OSHA General Duty Clause Explained

Many employers are unaware of OSHA’s general duty clause which essentially states that employers must identify and correct any health or safety hazards even if those hazards aren’t covered under an existing OSHA standard (aka “law”).

Companies who fail to manage this responsibility put their employees at risk for serious injuries and even fatalities, and their companies at risk for huge fines and penalties as well as potential civil and criminal liabilities.

OSHA’s General Duty Clause (GDC) is a cornerstone of workplace safety regulations in the United States. Found in Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, or OSH Act, the General Duty Clause lays out the basic responsibility of the employer to protect employees from the hazards present in the workplace.

In 2015, OSHA inspectors issued over 1,500 citations for violations of the General Duty Clause.

Understanding your responsibilities under this crucial piece of the OSH Act is critical to avoid workplace incidents, lost productivity, and costly penalties from the Department of Labor. The General Duty Clause states: “Each employer-

  1. 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;
  2. shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act”

And: “Each employer 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.”

There’s not much in the way of specific regulations or requirements in the law, but its overall meaning is clear and has wide ranging implications. Let’s unpack some of it.

Employer Responsibilities Under OSHA’s General Duty Clause Each employer (subject to the OSH Act) must provide to all employees a safe place of employment. A safe place of employment is one that is free of (1) recognized (2) serious hazards.

What Are “Recognized” Workplace Hazards? OSHA considers a hazard to be recognized if the employer knew (or provably should have known) of its existence due to previous incidents, employee complaints, previous failures to correct, industry standards, or if the legally abstract ‘reasonable person’ would have recognized it as a hazard.

What Are “Serious” Workplace Hazards? Serious hazards are those that could cause death, or “serious physical harm.” OSHA describes serious physical harm in its Field Operations Manual to include the following injuries; amputations, concussion, other serious impairment (temporary or permanent, chronic or acute) of any part of the body, crushing injuries and bone fractures, burns (from any source and including scalds), and lacerations of any kind involving significant bleeding and/or requiring suturing, sprains, strains, and musculoskeletal disorders. Serious physical harm also includes illnesses such as cancer, poisoning, chronic respiratory illness (silicosis, asbestosis, byssinosis, etc.), hearing and/or visual impairment, and impairment of the central nervous system.

Common Hazards Cited Under OSHA’s General Duty Clause If you look at OSHA’s index of Safety and Health Topics, you’ll see over 150 workplace hazards. OSHA issues a number of citations under the General Duty Clause for hazards not necessarily covered by a specific OSHA work safety Standard. Recognized hazards for which OSHA regularly cites employers under the GDC include:

  • Environmental hazards (extreme heat and cold, extreme weather events)
  • Workplace violence
  • Ergonomics and musculoskeletal disorders
  • Combustible dust in a variety of locations
  • Particular types of equipment (lasers, nail guns, pressure vessels, ammonia refrigeration systems)

How Does the General Duty Clause Protect Employees? Even with unlimited time, budget, and motivation, OSHA could not issue effective Standards to cover each and every workplace hazard that exists. It is therefore the employer’s obligation to minimize or mitigate serious hazards whether or not OSHA has issued a formal set of rules (a Standard) for dealing with that specific hazard.

How To Manage The General Duty Clause

Given the wide net cast by the GDC, it’s critical that employers understand OSHA compliance requirements so as to understand the difference between “recognized hazards” that fall under formal OSHA standards vs the GDC.

It’s also critical to learn how to manage an OSHA inspection.

In addition, it’s critical to train staff and management on how to conduct routine inspections to quickly identify and correct these hazards.

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