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Understanding OSHA's General Duty Clause and Industry Standards

Filed under Office & HR.

The heart of Occupational Safety Health Act compliance is becoming aware of its published standards, which address specific hazards. There is also a general duty under OSHA to maintain a safe workplace, which covers situations for which there are no published standards.

No matter what type of business you run, if you have employees, OSHA's rules and regulations can affect you. This is the case because the OSHA general duty clause requires every employer to provide every employee with a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards. In addition, OSHA's general industry standards apply to any employment in any industry to the extent that particular standards for specific industries do not apply. Therefore, as an employer you need to understand the applications and requirements under the general duty clause and general industry standards, as well as any specific standards that might apply to the industry you're in.

OSHA's General Duty Clause

OSHA contains a general requirement, applicable to every employer, that imposes an obligation on you to maintain a safe workplace. The general duty clause requires every employer to provide every employee with a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. This obligation is an open-ended one because it is designed to protect employees in situations where there are no established standards. Thus, your potential liability under the Act is also open-ended.


OSHA also addresses identified hazardous activities or conditions through specific standards applicable to those hazards. Where the general duty clause and a specific OSHA standard address an identical hazard, you must comply with the specific standards (which are generally more stringent). However, complying with specific requirements that apply to known hazards is far easier than anticipating and correcting hazards that have yet to be officially identified. In any event, the general duty highlights the value of developing workplace safety plans in order to identify potential hazards that are unique to your workplace.

An employer can be found to be in violation of the general duty clause if it can be shown that:

  • A hazard existed.
  • The hazard was likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
  • You had knowledge of the hazard or should have had knowledge because the hazard had been recognized by you, your industry, or common sense.
  • The hazard was foreseeable.
  • Workers were exposed to the hazard.
Think Ahead

You can anticipate some hazards that might result in a violation of the general duty clause by looking at the emerging issues that OSHA is investigating for purposes of proposed rule making. For example, recognition of the hazards associated with office automation (ergonomics) and workplace violence have made these hazards targets for general duty violations.

General Industry Standards

The general industry standards apply not only to manufacturing, wholesale, and retail establishments, but to any employment in any industry — including construction, maritime, and agriculture — to the extent that particular standards for these other industries do not apply.


Although maritime standards covered most of the operations of a shipbuilding and dry-dock firm, a violation of a general industry standard was found in a noncomplying scaffold used by workers painting a sign on a machine shop. The work happened to be in a shipyard, but the circumstances might have existed anywhere that a sign was being painted on a building.

Particular industry standards take priority over general standards if they address identical hazards.


The construction standards apply to every employment and place of employment of every employee engaged in construction work, defined as work for construction, alteration, or repair, including painting and decorating. Construction industry employers remain subject to the general industry standards where no construction standard applies.

Some standards impose similar requirements on all industry sectors. Two areas subject to this type of standard are:

  • Personal protective equipment. These standards, included separately in the standards for each industry segment (except agriculture), require you to provide employees, at no cost to them, with personal protective equipment designed to protect then against certain hazards. This can range from protective helmets in construction and cargo handling work to prevent head injuries, to eye protection, hearing protection, hard-toed shoes, special goggles (for welders, for example), and gauntlets for iron workers.
  • Hazard communication. if you are a manufacturer and/or importer of hazardous materials, you must conduct a hazard evaluation of the products you manufacture or import. If the product is found to be hazardous under the terms of the standard, containers of the material must be appropriately labeled and the first shipment of the material to a new customer must be accomplished by a materiel safety data sheet (MSDS). Employers who receive hazardous materials must train their employees, using the MSDSs they receive, to recognize and avoid the hazards the materials present.

How to Apply General and Specific OSHA Industry Standards

The OSHA standards are divided into four major categories based on the type of work being performed. General industry standards apply to any type of employment in any industry, including construction, shipyard employment, and agriculture, to the extent that particular standards for these other industries do not apply.

  • General industry standards. General industry standards include standards for:
    • walking/working surfaces
    • exit routes, emergency action plans and fire prevention plans (means of egress)
    • work platforms
    • ventilation
    • radiation
    • hazardous materials
    • personal protective equipment
    • sanitation
    • medical and first aid
    • fire protection
    • compressed gas/air equipment
    • material handling and storage
    • machinery and machine guarding
    • hand-held equipment
    • welding, cutting and brazing
    • electrical wiring and electronics
    • commercial diving
    • toxic and hazardous substances
    • special industry standards
  • Construction industry standards. This includes standards for:
    • fire protection
    • signs, signals and barricades
    • personal protective and lifesaving equipment
    • material handling, storage, use and disposal
    • hand/power tools, welding and cutting
    • electrical
    • scaffolds
    • diving
    • toxic and hazardous substances
    • overhead protection
    • stairways and ladders
    • fall protection
    • cranes, derricks, hoists, elevators and conveyors
    • motor vehicles
    • excavations
    • concrete and masonry
    • steel erections
    • demolition and blasting
  • Maritime industry standards. This includes standards for:
    • cargo handling and equipment
    • personal protection
    • terminal facilities
    • surface preparation and preservation
    • welding, cutting and heating
    • scaffolds and ladders
    • rigging equipment and gear
    • tools and equipment
    • ship machinery and piping systems
    • pressure vessels, drums and containers
    • electrical machinery
    • toxic and hazardous substances
    • gangways
    • opening and closing hatches
  • Agriculture industry standards. This includes standards for:
    • rollover protective structures
    • guarding of farm field equipment, farmstead equipment and cotton gins
    • sanitation and the use of cadmium

Complying With Industry Standards

Complying with standards can require many different types of activities, including but not limited to:

  • installing physical safeguards or engineering controls (e.g., guardrails or fire extinguishers)
  • meeting work practice requirements through employee training, company work rules, and supervision on the job
  • monitoring for air contaminants
  • providing employees with personal protective equipment
  • conducting tests and inspections of equipment
  • recordkeeping
  • using safety devices and equipment
  • determining which training, protection, and medical examinations are necessary for employees
  • determining when hazard warnings are required

How can you be sure you're complying with the general industry standards imposed by OSHA? You may want to consider following a four-step compliance process to make things much easier for yourself.

Does Your Workplace Conform to Safety Standards Imposed by OSHA?

The process to ensure that your workplace is in compliance with the OSHA general safety standards can be broken down into four steps:

Step 1: Identifying the Applicable Standards

Identify which of the standards apply to your workplace. To get a copy of the OSHA standards, or if you have any problems determining whether a standard applies to your workplace, you may contact the nearest OSHA area office for assistance (search online or look in the government pages of your local phone book) or you may contact a consultant.

Unfortunately, there is no shortcut in locating which of the general industry standards might apply. The standards are organized by:

  • types of equipment
  • materials used in the workplace
  • chemicals used in the workplace
  • building layout for exit routes, emergency action plans and fire prevention plans (egress)
  • workplace operations (welding, spray finishing)
  • special industries

Step 2: Review the Applicable Standards

After you have obtained a copy of the current standards, you will need to read over those standards that apply. However, you will need to review the introduction, often called scope and application, for each standard that is potentially applicable to the workplace.


Powered Industrial Trucks Section

Does your company handle and store materials using fork trucks, platform lift trucks, motorized hand trucks, and other specialized industrial trucks powered by electrical motors or internal combustion engines?

Scope. This section does not apply to compressed air or nonflammable compressed gas-operated industrial trucks, to farm vehicles, or to vehicles intended primarily for earth moving or over-the-road hauling. Lessees of rented material-handling equipment are responsible for ensuring that such equipment is in compliance. The lessor has no obligation under OSHA requirements, which are concerned only with the equipment as used by employees in their work environment.

If you answered "yes" to the question above, the information in "scope" indicates that the standard applies to your company.

Most businesses need to pay particular attention to the following standards that govern general office work sites:

  • walking and working surfaces
  • exit routes, emergency action plans and fire prevention plans (means of egress)
  • occupational health and environmental control
  • fire protection
  • materials handling and storage

Step 3: Implementing the Standards

Once you determine which standards apply to your workplace and become familiar with them, you must implement the requirements of all standards that apply to the particular workplace and the particular work task or operation.


If a particular standard applies to your workplace, and you need more time to comply with the standard or you have different but equivalent safeguards from those required by the standard, you may apply to OSHA for a temporary or permanent variance.

Compliance may involve ensuring equipment design specifications, training employees, and establishing prohibited practices and required practices. Compliance may also involve generating records, certifying compliance, or documenting required practices for that standard. These recordkeeping requirements are in addition to the general recordkeeping applicable to all employers.


If you need financial help in complying with the standards, the OSH Act has been amended by the Small Business Act to authorize loans (either directly or in cooperation with banks or other lending institution) to assist any small business in effecting additions to or alteration in the equipment, facilities or methods of operation of the business, in order to comply with OSHA standards or standards pursuant to an approved state plan.

Step 4: Duty Clause May Apply

Take into account that any occupational hazard not covered by an industry-specific or general industry standard may be covered by the OSHA general duty clause.

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