The General Duty Clause in the OSH Act states that employers must provide to each of their employees a safe work environment – one that is free from all recognized hazards that can cause death or severe physical harm.
Employers must also comply with safety and health standards set by the OSH Act. This is the most commonly cited OSHA violation – not the specific duty clauses but the general clause. It covers all things OSHA doesn’t have laws on but the employer knows to do.
A couple of companies have been cited recently for failing to provide that safe work environment for their employees. Mercury Products Corporation in Illinois was cited for multiple alleged violations, including worker exposure to electrical hazards and improper protection around moving machinery parts. The company has been fined $86,000.
A New York contracting company, Northstar Contracting Group, was cited for “failure to provide fall protection” and failure to provide protection for a worker on the ground who was exposed to struck-by hazards. Their fine was $53,900.
When does OSHA use the General Duty Clause?
Most citations by OSHA use the general duty clause because most of the hazards in the workplace are recognizable but not necessarily covered by a specific clause in the law. Here is an answer given in an October 2006 Interpretation Letter:
The general duty clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, is violated if an employer has failed to furnish a workplace that is free from recognized hazards causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm. The general duty clause is used where there is no standard that applies to the particular hazards involved.¹
Another OSHA Interpretation Letter from November 2006 states:
A violation of the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Act, exists if an employer has failed to furnish a workplace that is free from recognized hazards causing or likely to cause death or serious physical injury. The General Duty Clause is not used to enforce the provisions of consensus standards, although such standards are sometimes used as evidence of hazard recognition and the availability of feasible means of abatement. In addition, the General Duty Clause usually should not be used if there is a standard that applies to the particular condition, practice, means, operation, or process involved. See §1910.5(f).¹
Most Cited Standards
According to OSHA, fall protection in construction was the #1 most cited standard between October 2013 and September 2014. In 2013, falls were the leading cause of death in construction jobs, followed immediately by struck-by object.
Electrical hazards are one of the top 10 killers in the workplace and it isn’t always electricians who get hurt. Proper installation, proper maintenance and basic electrical safety training are the keys to prevention of electrical incidents. Have a safety professional audit your workplace periodically to improve your electrical safety program. Most companies do not realize that OSHA requires a written electrical safety program which is site specific and includes the electrical LO/TO/V system for the site [OSHA 1910.333(b)(1)].
OSHA also requires a written hazard assessment by law of all known hazards.
The employer shall verify that the required workplace hazard assessment has been performed through a written certification that identifies the workplace evaluated; the person certifying that the evaluation has been performed; the date(s) of the hazard assessment; and, which identifies the document as a certification of hazard assessment.
There were no recorded injuries in the events above that brought on the OSHA penalties, but failure to protect workers from known and existing hazards was enough reason for citation. Whether it’s fall potential, electrical injury potential, or other known hazards, OSHA expects companies to do due diligence in protecting workers from harm.
See OSHA statistics: https://www.osha.gov/oshstats/commonstats.html
¹Article updated April 24, 2017.