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Using the OSHA General Duty Clause to Create a Culture of Safety

Oct 19, 2015 1:47:52 PM

We routinely field questions from clients asking what is required to comply with OSHA fall protection regulations.  Focus on OSHA compliance is certainly a starting point, but is this the best way to think about safety and fall protection?  Is a compliant approach focusing on minimum standards enough?

Answers to these philosophical questions lie in OSHA’s General Duty Clause which requires employers to provide a workplace that is free of known hazards that may cause serious harm or death.  If you are thinking this language sounds vague, you aren’t alone.  It is—but this cryptic language has a purpose.  The General Duty Clause (or GDC) is used to issue citations for hazardous conditions not covered by specific OSHA regulations.  Some folks view the GDC as OSHA’s license to issue nitpicky citations.  To this way of thinking, the GDC is the “gotcha clause” wielded by inspectors looking to issue a citation and send a message to the employer.

We share a more positive perspective on the GDC.  Let’s say you see a condition that doesn’t look or feel right.  Your gut tells you a specific facility location or activity seems dangerous. For the sake of discussion we’ll also assume you aren’t an expert on the nuances and complexity of OSHA regulations, but you seek justification for allocating precious company resources to removing a fall hazard.  Enter the General Duty Clause:

29 U.S.C. § 654, 5(a)1: 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.”

There is a myth that overzealous OSHA inspectors routinely use the vaguely worded GDC to cite certain conditions that seem inherently unsafe.   In reality, this isn’t the case.  The actual number of General Duty Clause citations issued each year is actually quite small.  The wording may seem vague, but remember, when issuing a GDC citation the OSHA inspector must:

•    Prove that the employer knew, or should have known about a hazard based on industry accepted best practices and safety standards

•    Demonstrate a feasible means to correct or significantly minimize the hazard (e.g., safety equipment, administrative controls, or safety training).

To stay clear of General Duty Clause citations, we suggest starting with a comprehensive safety program that takes dead aim at known and clearly defined OSHA hazards.  Once this stage is complete, dig deeper to identify and mitigate the additional safety hazards causing sleepless nights.  And remember, to OSHA’s way of thinking, the various aspects of your safety program–proof of hazard identification/mitigation, employee training, and enforcement measures don’t exist in the absence of documentation.  Cover your bases and commit plans, actions, and outcomes to writing.

If you only see the General Duty Clause is a “gotcha moment”, you are missing the point.  Viewed in a broader context, the GDC moves the conversation away from meeting minimum OSHA fall hazard requirements toward a framework or process aimed at reducing all hazards in your facility.  That’s what we call a true culture of safety.

If you have questions about OSHA fall protection requirements, hazard assessments, inspection, or recertification of an engineered fall arrest system, contact the safety experts at Diversified Fall Protection for further assistance.