OSHA Basics: The General Duty Clause–5(a)(1)

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In this installment of our OSHA Basics series, we’re going to give you a quick introduction to OSHA’s so-called “General Duty Clause.”

Read on to find out what this is, how it’s related to an employer’s responsibility for occupational safety and health, and how an OSHA inspector might cite an employer for violating the General Duty Clause.

OSHA’s General Duty Clause

Section 5 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act lists responsibilities or duties of employers and employees for occupational safety and health.

Section 5(a) covers the duties of the employer, while Section 5(b) covers the duties of the employee.

In 5(a), the Act lists two responsibilities for the employer. According to 5(a), the employer:

(1) 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;

(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

It’s 5(a)(1) that’s often referred to as the “General Duty Clause,” and that’s typically interpreted to mean that if an occupational hazard isn’t covered in a specific occupational health and safety standard–as explained in 5(a)(2)–then the employer still has a general duty to “furnish..each…employee 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…”


How OSHA Inspectors Cite The General Duty Clause

During an OSHA inspection, the inspector will walk-around the work area and look for hazards.

If the hazard violates a specific OSHA standard (like, for example, there are hazardous chemicals that are not labeled as required by the Hazard Communication standard), the inspector will cite the employer for violating that standard.

However, if there’s a hazard that’s not specifically covered by a standard, the inspector can cite the employer for violating 5(a)(1), the General Duty Clause.


When An OSHA Inspector Will Cite the General Duty Clause During an Inspection

According to this OSHA Letter of Interpretation (LI), general duty provisions are used in inspections:

…only where there are no specific standards applicable to the particular hazard involved; 29 CFR 1910.5(f) expressly provides that an employer who is in compliance with a specific standard shall be deemed to be in compliance with the general duty clause insofar as it applies to hazards covered by the specific standard.

Any recognized hazard created in part by a condition not covered by a standard may be cited under the general duty clause. A hazard is recognized if it is a condition that is (a) of a common knowledge or general recognition in the particular industry in which it occurred, and (b) detectable (1) by means of the senses (sight, smell, touch, and hearing), or (2) is such wide, general recognition as a hazard in the industry that even if it is not detectable by means of the senses, there are generally known and accepted tests for its existence which should are generally known to the employer. In addition, “Voluntary Standards” also meet the preceding criteria for identifying a hazard.

Because of the virtually equivalent language used in Sections 17(k) and 5(a)(1) of the Act, in describing serious and general duty clause violations, respectively, a nonserious citation is not issued for violations based on the general duty clause. Citations based on the general duty clause are limited to alleged serious violations (including willful and/or repeated violations which would otherwise qualify as serious violations, except for their willful or repeated nature).

For further clarification, this OSHA Letter of Interpretation says the following elements are necessary to prove a violation of the General Duty Clause:

  1. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed
  2. The hazard was recognized
  3. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm
  4. There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard

Conclusion: The General Duty Clause

If this “OSHA Basics” article on OSHA’s General Duty Clause was helpful to you, you may also want to check out some of the following articles (please note that if an article topic is listed below but does not have a link, it’s written and will be published shortly).

Let us know if you’ve got a topic you’d like us to explore in our OSHA Basics series. The comments section below awaits you.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 20 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center, and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training.

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