Recently highlighted in the December 2019 issue of Safety + Health Magazine from the NSC, the topic of the OSHA General Duty Clause was discussed. https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/19258-oshas-general-duty-clause
The General Duty Clause is the OSHA Standard that applies to all risks that do not have their own individual standard. Two examples are workplace violence or heat-related illnesses. Currently, they have no specific standards. However, the employer is still accountable for mitigating the risks for their employees. If an employer does not provide a safe environment for them, OSHA can step in and review the potential hazard.
Being that this “General Duty” clause applies to everything, one would think that this would be the most cited standard amongst OSHA violations. On the contrary, it makes up one of the fewest citations issued each year by the agency. The reason behind this is an “assessment/test” needs to be completed to validate that an employer failed to keep their employee safe.
OSHA follows these four steps to evaluate an employer to determine if a citation is warranted:
- It must be determined if the employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which its employees were exposed.
- The hazard was recognized previously by the employer.
- The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
- There was a useful and feasible method available to correct the hazard.
These four steps are not easily identifiable and are unique to each employer. Defining the responsibilities and what actions taken previously can muddy the waters for determining the outcome of using citations or not. With the burden of proof so high, OSHA has trouble defining hazards and all the conditions present to consider a violation. For example, lifting activities can be difficult to asses due to the variety of weight lifted and the number of repetitions.
In some instances, it provides a form of a stop-gap until a specific rulemaking is passed. Due to the lengthy time it takes for an OSHA standard rule to completed (typically between 5-12 yrs), the General Duty Clause becomes essential tool for keeping and maintaining a safe work environment. So, it is vital for an employer to review their work environment regularly, to indentify missed or newly developed hazards.
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