OSHA’s Ergonomics program standard is scrapped, and even though several congressional members and the Secretary of Labor have promised new rules, there is nothing on the books yet. So do workers have any protection from workplace risk factors like force and awkward posture? The answer is YES.
OSHA does have the ability to levy fines and demand workplace changes for conditions related to poor ergonomics. How is this possible? Well, actually, it has always been possible due to what is called the General Duty Clause.
On October 29, 1970, Richard Nixon signed Public Law 91-596. This law, the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The stated purpose of the act is:
To Assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women;
- By authorizing enforcement of the standards developed under the Act;
- By assisting and encouraging the States in their efforts to assure safe and healthful working conditions;
- By providing for research, information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health;
- And for other purposes.
In order to include the consideration of ergonomic hazards in normal work place inspections without the use of specific standards, OSHA has turned to the provisions of Section 5 of the OSH Act called the “General Duty Clause”.
OSHA General Duty Clause
Section 5 of the OSH Act, termed the General Duty Clause, states:
A. 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 likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;
- Shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.
- 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.
If an ergonomic hazard (or other hazard) exists, OSHA inspectors may issue a citation under the General Duty Clause when the following criteria are met:
- There is not an applicable OSHA standard.
- The employer failed to keep the work place free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed.
- The hazard is (or should have been) recognized by the employer.
- The hazard is causing or was likely to cause death or other serious physical harm.
- There is a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.
The absence of specific ergonomic standards requires interpretations when using the general duty clause.
- Would the hazard cause serious physical harm?
- Is the hazard recognized?
- Do feasible abatement methods exist?
OSHA has successfully used the General Duty Clause as a basis for citation of ergonomics hazards in several industries including nursing homes, tire production, and the food industry.
In the last 5 years, at least 22 employers have received citations on the basis of ergonomics violations.