Addressing the General Duty Clause in an OHSMS

| February 21, 2013

Recently, I have noticed an increase in statements that some particular safety program or another is required because of the OSHA General Duty Clause.  Often, this statement is tied to a pitch for consulting services or to promote a fill-in-the-blank template for whatever safety program is being discussed. 

These statements are often a misrepresentation of what the general duty clause actually requires.

What is the “General Duty Clause”?

danger thin ice There is no OSHA “general duty clause” regulation.   The “general duty clause” is simply a shorthand reference to section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 which 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 likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.

Over the last 40 years, there have been a number of court decisions interpreting this section of the law.  These cases have established the requirements that OSHA must be meet in order to bring a “general duty clause” enforcement action against a particular employer.  These requirements are –

  • There must be a “recognized” hazard – either actual knowledge on the part of the employer or common knowledge in the employer’s industry (for example, set out in an applicable ANSI standard);
  • There must be either an employee death or serious injury, or a substantial probability for serious physical harm, that is directly caused by the hazard; and
  • Feasible means must exist to materially reduce the hazard.

The General Duty Clause clearly is not a documentation requirement to be cited when no other OSHA regulation applies.  It is a requirement that recognized hazards need to be addressed in order to prevent serious injuries.

Since I spend much of my time drafting and using management system standards, the OSH Act “general duty clause” requirements appear to me to be very similar to the “risk assessment” and/or “corrective action” requirements set out in the various management system standards, including OHSAS 18001, ISO 14001 and ISO 9001.

These requirements are –

  • Establish processes to identify hazards and/or nonconformities (i.e. identified problems likely to cause harm);
  • Assess these and determine the need for action (analyze the probably and extent of likely harm and actions needed to reduce the risk); and
  • Take the actions needed to control the hazards and review the effectiveness of those actions.

If an organization establishes an OHS management system with robust processes that are designed to proactively “recognize” and assess hazards and then implements feasible means of addressing these hazards, it will also improve its compliance with the “general duty clause” requirements set out in the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

© ENLAR Compliance Services, Inc. (2013)

Category: OHS Laws & Legal Compliance

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