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OSHA's General Duty Clause and Why It's Important

How OSHA's General Duty Clause Can Change Your Business

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OSHA

OSHA

What happens when there is no OSHA standard on a specific safety hazard? You know it’s unsafe… but OSHA hasn’t gotten around to writing a specific regulation to cover that hazard. Learn more about how OSHA's General Duty Clause might apply.

OSHA General Duty Clause

When new industries, technologies and manufacturing operations are introduced on the market, it’s obvious that OSHA won’t have specific standards on the books very quickly. And looking through all the standards, you may find there isn’t a specific rule written for every current known hazard. So, what does that mean for employers? Are companies and organizations free to do whatever they want as long as there isn’t an OSHA rule about it?

Short answer: No, Definitely Not.

OSHA has a catch-all called The General Duty Clause that covers all recognized workplace hazards that might not necessarily be addressed by a specific standard. The General Duty Clause applies to any set of OSHA standards including the Construction Regulations (29 CFR 1926) and the General Industry Regulations (29 CFR 1910).

Occupational Safety and Health Act

OSH Act of 1970 General Duty Clause states

(a) Each employer --

(1) 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;

(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

(b) 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.

Workers in a Lab

Employers can be cited for violation of The General Duty Clause if a recognized serious hazard exists in the workplace and the employer does not take reasonable steps to prevent or abate the hazard. The General Duty Clause is used only when there is no standard that applies to the particular hazard in question.

The following elements are necessary to prove a violation of the General Duty Clause:

  1. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed
  2. The hazard was recognized
  3. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm
  4. There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.
Road Workers Laying Asphalt

Any hazard created in part by a condition not covered by a standard may be cited under The General Duty Clause. A condition is recognized as a hazard if it is

  • Generally recognized as a hazard in the particular industry in which it occurred
  • Detectable by sight, smell, touch, hearing or testing

Some common hazards that might be cited under The General Duty Clause include hazardous lifting, indoor air quality and workplace violence.

Warehouse Worker Experiences a Back Injury

Federal OSHA does not have a standard on ergonomics so in work environments where repetitive tasks, awkward postures or hazardous lifting are commonplace, the employer is required to ensure these hazards are minimized so employees are not at risk for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

OSHA also currently has no indoor air quality (IAQ) standards but it does provide guidelines about the most common IAQ workplace complaints. Employers are required to follow The General Duty Clause when it comes to air quality in the workplace and can be cited by OSHA if this is a hazard for employees.

Painters Preparing Walls

In another example, because there are no specific OSHA standards for workplace violence, an employer that has experienced acts of workplace violence, or becomes aware of threats, intimidation, or other indicators showing that the potential for violence in the workplace exists, would be on notice of the risk of workplace violence and should implement a workplace violence prevention program combined with engineering controls, administrative controls, and training.

Safety Poster

Other examples of hazardous situations where employers were cited under The General Duty Clause and ordered by OSHA to correct the hazard include:

  • Required frequent twisting of the body while shifting a load
  • No immediate means provided to lone workers to summon medical assistance
  • Use of hoists without load ratings
  • Improper storage of highly reactive chemicals
  • Exposure to mercury vapors from inadequate housekeeping
  • No automatic shut-off provided on a pipe threading machine
Worker Installing Flooring

Adding regular safety meetings to your company’s safety and health program is guaranteed to lower the risk of safety violations, including those that might fall under The General Duty Clause. Holding regular safety meetings, toolbox talks or safety moments with your crews, teams and staff is also the best way to ensure that your company is off to a great start meeting and exceeding all of OSHA’s compliance standards.

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