The General Duty Clause is a clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 which addresses hazards for which no specific standard exists. Guidance for what may constitute a violation can come from a variety of sources, including manufacturer’s recommendations, consensus standards, and local, state, or federal laws. The clause states that employers are required by OSHA to provide a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees”. Employers who do not take action to remove, prevent, or abate a recognized hazard in the workplace are therefore in violation of the general duty clause. In order to better understand constitutes a violation of the general duty clause, OSHA provides the following elements that must be satisfied in order to determine if a hazard is a violation:
- The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;
- The hazard was recognized;
- The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and
- There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.
If an employer is found to be in violation of these four items, they will be issued a citation by OSHA.
The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employee were exposed
This element requires that OSHA prove that the employer did not take action to remove, abate, or prevent a hazard to their employees. To prove that an employer is in violation of this item, OSHA must prove that there is a specific hazard to which employee were exposed. Examples of violations of the general duty clause may include items such as workplace violence or use of cell phones while driving. Some of the most common General Duty Clause citations fall under the categories of ergonomics, heat/cold injuries, workplace violence, disease-related exposure, and respiratory hazards.
On jobsites with multiple employers, OSHA must prove that the employer in question in responsible for failing to remove the hazard.
The Hazard was Recognized
In order to prove that a hazard was recognized, OSHA requires evidence that the employer was aware of the hazard. Examples of evidence that OSHA may use to prove that a hazard was recognized by the employer may include incident and injury logs, inspection reports, and employee complaints. Additionally, OSHA may also prove that a hazard was recognized by “common sense” recognition, meaning that the hazard was obviously recognizable.
The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm
For the hazard to qualify as likely to cause death or serious physical harm, OSHA must prove that the hazard could harm employees. An incident may be used to prove that the hazard was likely to cause death or serious harm, but it is important to note that the occurrence of an accident or incident does not necessarily prove that the employer violated the General Duty Clause. The serious effects of the hazard must be reasonably foreseeable. For example, if workers are exposed to hot weather that is within National Weather Service’s warning levels for a prolonged period of time, OSHA can reasonably conclude that the effects of the hazard were both serious and apparent to the employer.
There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard
OSHA must be able to prove that there were feasible and useful methods to correct the hazard. A method to correct or abate the hazard must be able to substantially reduce the hazard. OSHA has to be able to prove how the method will successfully correct the hazard, as well as that it can be reasonably implemented by the company. The method to correct the hazard must be technically and economically feasible for the employer.
The General Duty Clause is in place to protect workers from hazards in the workplace which are not covered under a standard. Due to the broad nature of the General Duty Clause, it can sometimes be difficult to understand what constitutes a violation. If you need help understanding OSHA’s General Duty Clause or you’re interested in learning about the steps we take to ensure workplace safety and compliance, contact us today. Our Evolution Safety Resources team is here to help you every step of the way.