Enforcement and Inspection

“Free from Recognized Hazards”: Understanding the General Duty Clause

One section of the OSH Act that seems to bewilder employers and employees alike is Section 5, known as the General Duty Clause (GDC). It’s very brief, but it has considerable significance among OSHA’s means of enforcing compliance—and, for that matter, can be useful to employees seeking relief from what they consider unsafe work.

The GDC is used by OSHA, in some cases, to cite employers for workplace hazards that are not covered by a specific standard. But it can’t be used to cite just any hazard. Here’s a primer on what the GDC covers and how OSHA uses it.

What Does the GDC Say?

The GDC is not found in the OSHA standards; instead, it is in the OSH Act itself. It reads:

“(a) -Each employer (1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment that 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.”

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Because it is in the Act rather than in a specific part of the OSHA standards, the GDC covers all industry groupings. You’re not exempt from GDC citations just because you’re in construction, or shipbuilding, or agriculture.

When Is the GDC Used?

The clause requires employers to protect workers from any serious and recognized workplace hazard even where there is no standard dealing with it. For example, repetitive tasks, awkward postures, and harmful lifting can cause painful and debilitating musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)—but OSHA has been unsuccessful after years of attempting to promulgate an ergonomic standard to deal with this hazard.

One historical case was that of a plant where employees were at significant risk from heavy, repetitive lifting and where the company repeatedly (over at least 4 years) ignored the ergonomist’s warning of the risk—and workers had incurred injuries as a result. The plant was cited for nine willful violations of the GDC. It has also been applied when there has been such egregious failure to comply with an actual standard that workers have been seriously endangered.

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A few other situations in which citations were issued and the employer told to abate have been:

  • Operating a conveyor system that had no emergency stop devices,
  • Exposure to mercury vapor from improper housekeeping and lack of monitoring, and
  • Failure to provide an employee working alone with an immediate means of summoning medical help.

Tomorrow, we will look at the criteria OSHA must meet in order to cite a hazard under the GDC.