Ergonomics done right.®
July 31st, 2008

OSHA’s General Duty Clause…

Lynn Bergeson’s post, "Workplace Safety is a Shared Responsibility" provides perspective on some of the challenges posed by relying on OSH Act’s General Duty Clause as a non-specific catch all.

The OSH Act has triggered many positive accomplishments. Still, after 35 years, much is left undone. More than 15 workers are killed every day on the job in this country and a worker becomes ill or injured on the job every 2.5 seconds.

It’s not well publicized that we have more fish and wildlife inspectors than OSHA inspectors, or that the penalties from a chemical release that kills fish is higher than a chemical release that kills a worker. Almost no one understands that OSHA inspections are infrequent and penalties for endangering workers are so insignificant that there is almost no disincentive for employers to break the law.

The overwhelming majority of deaths, injuries, and illnesses could have been prevented had the employers simply provided the safe workplace required and complied with well-recognized OSHA regulations or other safe practices.

Obviously the General Duty Clause is not the key. While lofty in principle, the General Duty Clause (as Lynn Bergeson points out) is seriously deficient in practice. Vague definitions and arguable phrasing like "serious physical harm" combine to assure that a serious violation, while clear on its merits, will have a tough time in court.

For a general duty clause to be effective, it should be straightforward, clear and consise — you meet it or you don’t. Here’s an example:

It is the general duty of every employer to ensure that every workplace has a comprehensive safety and management program which is effective in finding and fixing recognized hazards and in reducing workplace injuries and illnesses.

Could your organization meet this requirement?