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What Contractors Need To Know About OSHA’s General Duty Clause

December 12, 2022

Cecilia De La Rosa

Cecilia De La Rosa

All businesses are required to provide a safe and healthy environment for their workers through the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The act states that employers are responsible for identifying potential hazards and protecting workers from injury or illness due to those hazards. The general duty clause is a catch-all regulation that protects workers from hazards that aren’t covered by other regulations. Because of the variety of work environments construction workers are placed in, its important for employers to know and understand its meaning.

What is the general duty clause?

In the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), section 5(a)(1) is often referred to as the general duty clause. It states:

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.

The clause mandates an employer’s basic responsibility to protect employees from hazards in the workplace. It has been interpreted to mean that employers must identify and correct any health or safety hazards, even if the hazard is not covered under existing OSHA standards.

Who does the general duty clause apply to?

The general duty clause, and the rest of the regulations in the OSH Act, apply to almost every employer. The only excluded workers include:

  • The self-employed
  • Immediate family members of farm employers
  • Any hazards regulated by another federal agency

Employer’s responsibilities under the general duty clause

The easiest way to explain an employer’s responsibilities under this clause is to look at what a violation of the clause looks like. OSHA defines a violation as the following:

  • The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed,
  • The hazard was recognized (or known about in the industry),
  • 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.

In order for a citation to be issued, all four of the above conditions must be met. It’s also important to note that a violation of this clause can only occur if there is no other standard regarding a hazard. See the section below for a list of potential hazards that have been used to cite a general duty clause violation.

In general, the standard states that every employer must take measures to protect workers from hazards in the workplace that they are aware of and that can be corrected. Employers must also provide the equipment or controls to address each potential hazard.

For construction workers, this often translates into the employer providing hard hats, eye protection, gloves, hearing protection, mask and respirators, and other PPE to protect workers. It may also require employers to provide equipment guards and controls to prevent misuse of tools.

Construction sites are busy places with multiple employers involved in the project at any one time. This can make determining who’s responsible difficult. OSHA often looks at who supervises employees, who assigns the work, and who pays the employees.

To prove that an employer knew about a specific hazard, OSHA often looks at injury and illness logs, employee complaints, company memos, safety rules, near miss reports, and inspection reports. They may also cite an employer for a hazard that is so obvious that a reasonable person would recognize it (a “common sense” recognition of a hazard).

If all four parts of the test can’t be proven but an inspector believes a hazard still exists, an employer may receive a letter outlining potential remedies or recommending using the agency’s free consultation service.

Potential hazards to watch for

Here are some of the potential hazards that OSHA has recognized as violations of the general duty clause:

  • Environmental hazards (heat, cold, other weather conditions)
  • Workplace violence
  • Ergonomics
  • Combustible dust
  • Equipment and tools
  • COVID-19

Next steps for employers

If you have concerns about whether you are providing adequate protection for your workers, you may want to complete a job hazard assessment. This involves visiting jobsites and noting potential hazards that your workers may face. Once you’ve identified potential hazards, then you can decide how you can protect your workers.

You can find a list of potential hazards recognized by the industry on the OSHA website. This list connects you directly to the regulations regarding each hazard. OSHA may have additional literature available that puts the requirements in plain language.

For more information on OSHA’s general duty clause and how it affects employers, see our online class.

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