While employers in industries like construction and manufacturing are likely well-versed in specific Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) regulations, an often overlooked regulation called the General Duty Clause applies to every employer.
Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (the “General Duty Clause”) requires an employer to provide a place of employment free from recognized hazards that may result in death or serious physical harm to its employees. Violations include fines, legal liability, and reputational damage.
To cite an employer for a General Duty Clause violation, OSHA must show:
- The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard that was recognized or should have been recognized by the employer;
- The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and
- There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.
Martha Catevenis, an instructor at Keene State College’s OSHA Education Center, explains that in addition to generally known hazards, like texting while driving, OSHA expects employers to know and recognize industry-recognized dangers and take action.
Workplace Violence and General Duty Obligation Example
The healthcare industry has become a focus under the General Duty Clause due to growing workplace violence incidents due to increasing patient mental health and substance abuse issues and staffing shortages. A behavioral health facility was recently cited after staff members had their hair ripped out, were bitten, and suffered repeated concussions during a seven-month period when staffing was low. OSHA inspectors found the facility violated the General Duty Clause by failing to implement reasonable solutions such as:
- Ensuring that units were adequately staffed to handle behavioral health emergencies
- Providing employees with personal panic alarms
- Adequately training new employees
- Conducting post-incident debriefings and investigations
- Providing trained security personnel on all three shifts
To provide education and solutions, OSHA provides a comprehensive resource for the healthcare industry on their website, which can be found at www.osha.gov/healthcare.
Other Common General Duty Violations
Employers must identify hazards in the workplace and take reasonable steps to protect their employees from them. Other safety situations that create potential serious risk of harm or death, do not have specific OSHA regulations and which are often overlooked include:
- Failure to take steps to prevent distracted driving on the job
- Failure to provide high-visibility clothing around vehicular traffic
- Failure to secure storage racks in warehouses and commercial buildings
- Failure to repair structural damage to storage racks or buildings
- Failure to implement lockout/tagout in construction
- Allowing incompatible chemicals to be stored together
- Failure to prevent thermal stress (exposure to high heat and/or cold)
- Failure to action to prevent or minimize ergonomic hazards
Protecting Your Workplace
By taking proactive measures through effective prevention programs, employers can reduce the risk of being cited under the General Duty Clause. Creating a safe and healthy workplace promotes employee morale and retention and reduces disruptions and workers’ compensation premiums. Available resources include OSHA’s “Help for Employers” section and Keene State College’s free, confidential WorkWISE NH Consultation Program.
Employers should always consult with employment counsel whenever there is an OSHA inspection or citation.