Two aspects of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 place responsibility for worker safety in the hands of all employers: the standards, or regulations, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the General Duty Clause, or GDC. When no standard exists for a safety-related situation, Section 5 (1)(a) of this law, the General Duty Clause, applies as a blanket regulation.
Role of GDC
The Occupational Safety and Health Act leaves identifying and addressing workplace health and safety hazards to OSHA. The agency does this through its standards.
OSHA standards outline specific actions that employers with agriculture, construction and maritime operations must take to protect their workers. It also has a general industry standard that applies to all businesses.
Despite the volume of rules these standards contain, some situations that pose a risk for death, injury or illness to workers have no standard for employers to follow. The law takes this possibility into account through the General Duty Clause, which obligates employers to provide a work environment with no recognized hazards that "are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm" to employees.
Applying the Clause
Concerned workers who cannot cite a particular standard when reporting a hazardous situation to their employer can refer to the General Duty Clause. For example, work that involves repeated overhead lifting can lead to back problems, yet OSHA has no standard to guide employers on procedures they should implement or equipment employees should use to prevent back injury. OSHA has cited employers under the General Duty Clause for permitting "repeated lifting above shoulder height," according to the Automotive Wholesalers Association of New England.
OSHA inspectors can only issue a General Duty Clause violation if a hazard meets several standards -- if it:
- is recognized
- is apt to cause death or serious harm, and
- is correctable.
The agency defines a hazard as a "workplace condition or practice that presents a potential for harm." It considers a hazard to be recognized if the employer's industry acknowledges it, a workers' compensation claims indicates the employer should be aware of it or common sense accepts it as potentially dangerous.
According to the OSHA Field Operations Manual, a General Duty Clause violation also must involve a hazard that can cause serious harm, including injuries such as concussions, burns and musculosketetal disorders or illnesses such as cancer, poisoning or eye damage. Finally, there must be a known solution to eliminate, correct or diminish the hazard.