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Understanding and Applying OSHA's General Duty Clause

December 20th, 2022 by Dakota Software Staff

Understanding and Applying OSHA's General Duty Clause

Year after year, EHS management has moved up on the priority list of most organizations. However, while safety and health in the workplace are more important than ever, it's still not uncommon for safety professionals to receive pushback from management and employees when applying best practices to work activities.

One of the most common arguments heard across industries is, "That's not an OSHA regulation." The most straightforward response to this statement is that company policies can, and often do, go above the minimum safety and health requirements set by OSHA. Just because there is no OSHA regulation doesn't mean they don't have to work within company safety and health parameters, as well as industry best practices.

In addition, the above statement demonstrates ignorance of OSHA's General Duty Clause. This clause is OSHA's ace up its sleeve, providing it with a universal basis for issuing a citation even in the absence of a specific regulation.

What is OSHA's General Duty Clause?

"Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees 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."

- OSHA's General Duty Clause, found in section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970

Due to the uniqueness and ever-changing landscape of industry, OSHA recognized that it is virtually impossible to create safety and health regulations for every situation a company or employee may encounter in their day-to-day work lives. In response, Arizona Governor Howard Pyle identified that a catch-all regulation was needed to fill the gaps left by the written regulations and pushed for adding the General Duty Clause.

Unfortunately, many organizations and their representatives are unaware of OSHA's General Duty Clause and falsely operate under the assumption that if something isn't in the Federal Code of Regulations, they are not responsible for it. As a result, these organizations may be putting their workers and their company at risk because they are not fulfilling their responsibility to provide a safe working environment free of recognized hazards.

When Does OSHA Use the General Duty Clause?

The General Duty Clause can only be applied when there is no standard for the hazard already in place, with some of the most common being extreme heat and cold, severe weather, workplace violence, and ergonomics. While it may seem vague, an OSHA inspector must meet four criteria before the General Duty Clause applies. Let's use the example of an employee losing consciousness while working on a roof during extreme heat conditions and work through those four criteria.

  • Was an employee exposed to a hazard that their employer failed to remove?
    Yes, the worker was exposed to extreme heat conditions while at work.

  • Did the employer recognize the hazard?
    OSHA wants to establish if there is evidence that the employer was, or should have been, aware of the hazard and if a reasonable person could identify extreme heat as a risk to workers. Many would consider this a yes, as extreme heat is commonly known as a threat to health.

  • Did the hazard cause or was likely to cause death or serious harm?
    Yes, the worker lost consciousness which could have resulted in death or severe harm.

  • Was there a reasonable method available to eliminate the hazard?
    Yes, many well-established methods exist to reduce the threat of extreme heat outdoors. These include shading the work area, providing cold water and electrolyte drinks, fans, and scheduled breaks. The employer could also move the work to a time of day when temperatures were less extreme.

Tools for General Duty Clause Compliance

While OSHA doesn't issue citations based on the General Duty Clause that often, companies must understand their responsibilities under this broad requirement. Companies that might have thought they were doing everything possible to protect their employees in the eyes of the law may be incorrect. Bottom line: just because something isn't in the regulations doesn't mean that your company is not responsible for protecting employees.

The best way to comply with OSHA's General Duty Clause and the rest of its workplace safety regulations is to continue doing the tried-and-true methods to create a safer, more compliant workplace. This begins with a thorough understanding of the unique regulatory obligations for each of your facilities, typically referred to as regulatory registers. You should also have a mechanism for keeping up with changing regulatory requirements and understanding how operational changes impact obligations. With a full understanding of these requirements, your auditing, inspections, incidents, observation, and training programs can be more focused as you look for potential hazards.

Audits, Inspections, and Observations

The more eyes you have looking for hazards and non-compliance, the better. Employee participation in audits, inspections, and safety observations is crucial. Collecting as much information as possible and then compiling it in a digital format can provide organizations with valuable insight into their operations and a clear picture of the hazards confronting their workforce.

Audits and inspections also demonstrate to regulators that your organization is actively looking for workplace hazards to fulfill your obligation of delivering a hazard-free workplace. However, identifying the threat isn't good enough; companies must eliminate the risk. That's where action item tracking becomes a vital component. Unfortunately, many companies that do a great job at hazard identification have poor follow-through regarding fixing those hazards.

Companies may assign an action item to an individual, but have no system to guarantee the completion of those actions. As a result, hazards remain in the workplace, waiting to expose workers, and the organizations are not fulfilling their obligations even though they think they are. Action tracking software is an excellent solution for this common problem. It ensures that no action items fall through the cracks.

How Software Can Help

Unfortunately, even when aware of OSHA’s General Duty Clause, many companies struggle to fulfill their obligation to provide a work environment free of recognized hazards. Thankfully compliance is often simply a matter of applying many of the tried-and-true tools used within EHS management for decades.

While these tools are well-established, modern EHS management software takes them to another level. Digital safety inspections and audits help your organization identify risks and increase employee awareness of the hazards present in their workplace. Action item tracking helps companies develop a consistent game plan to address those risks so that they don't remain uncorrected and expose workers. Finally, based on compliance obligations, management systems, and recognized hazards, employers must conduct and track employee training to ensure employees are knowledgeable of what actions they must take.

Dakota Software's easy-to-use software solutions verify regulatory compliance and identify safety trends to create corrective action plans that make a real difference. Check out the product demo library to learn more about how Dakota Software can help you create a safer and more compliant workplace.

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