The OSHA General Duty Clause (GDC) states that an 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." 29 U.S. Code §654(a)(1). This clause exists to cover hazardous conditions that may not be specifically addressed in the CFR, or for which the written regulations are outdated but still present a significant danger to workers.
The primary element of the General Duty Clause is the existence of a "recognized hazard." A recognized hazard is one that the employer had or should have had knowledge of, an obvious hazard, or one that is generally recognized by the industry in question. This is obviously quite a broad definition, which serves as a catch-all for many unforeseen conditions that might arise on a job site.
OSHA's Assistant Secretary of Labor recently published an open letter to employers regarding cell phone use while driving on the job. Although there is no specific regulation published regarding cell phone use while driving, Mr. Michaels stated that "OSHA will use its General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, to issue citations and proposed penalties in these circumstances." Employers cited under the General Duty Clause for such an infraction could potentially face fines of up to $70,000.
Another similar application of the GDC occurred when OSHA issued a citation against the company Fiberdome, in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, for failing to keep employees' exposure levels to the chemical styrene below recommendedlevels. OSHA has separately published permissible exposure limits for styrene, with which Fiberdome was in compliance. Regardless, OSHA classified the exposure as a "recognized hazard" and issued a citation to Fiberdome.
All employers should be cautious and aware of potential hazards to which their employees are exposed, and not just limited to those listed in federal regulations. Employers should take steps to assess their job sites, engage in voluntary, responsible abatement of hazards facing their employees, and stay well informed of hazardous circumstances commonly arising in their industry. Most importantly, remember that just because OSHA doesn't have a specific regulation regarding a hazard, does not mean that employers are immune to citations for it.