The General Duty Clause of the OSHA Standards

The Occupational Safety and Health Act, more formally called the Williams-Steiger Act of
1970, created a Federal Agency to be operated within the United States Department of Labor.
This agency was charged with the mission to:
“Assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women; by authorizing
enforcement of the standards developed under this act; by assisting and encouraging states in
their efforts to assure safe and healthy working conditions; by providing for research,
information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health; and for
other purposes.”
The Act established duties, legal responsibilities on employers who:
“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” and
“Shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.”
The OSHA Act goes onto state that “each employee shall comply with occupational safety
and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which
are applicable to his own actions and conduct.”
To provide minimum criteria of safety rules and practices OSHA has developed the OSHA
Standards. The OSHA Standards are adequate to cover almost every conceivable hazardous
situation that may develop the workplace. The OSHA standards are developed with industry
and citizen input and reflect the best practice to identify and remediate workplace hazards.
However, there may be situations where there is no applicable OSHA standard to cite yet a
hazard exist in the workplace that could cause injury to workers. OSHA compliance officers
following the stated mission of OSHA to furnish a workplace free of recognizable hazards
can call on the General Duty Clause to compel the employer to correct the unsafe condition.
While this is not a true OSHA Standard it does carry the full weight of federal law as it is
stated in the actual OSHA Act as a provision in the Preamble to the Act.
The General Duty Clause is a Catch-All portion of the OSHA law that allows OSHA to cite
and fine employers’ when OSHA identifies an unsafe condition where no OSHA Standard
exist. This Citation is generally called a 5 (a) (1) violation as that is the reference number in
the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

In practice, through OSHA, Court precedent and the OSHA Review Commission it has been
established that if the following elements are present then a General Duty Clause citation
may be issued to the employer in question:
1) The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees were
2) The hazard was recognizable and not hidden or latent.
3) The hazard was likely to or has caused death or serious injury
4) There exist a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard and therefore prevent
So, in addition to just complying with the OSHA Standards employers have a duty to
recognize and eliminate hazards in the workplace. However, it may be evident that if
employers implement the appropriate OSHA Standards to control hazards in their workplace
then the work environment would be free of recognized hazards and OSHA would see a good
faith attempt on the art of the employer to prevent injuries and a General Duty Clause is less
likely as well s any citation.