The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (the Act) is one of the first efforts by the federal government to regulate safety and health in the workplace (Morey, 1973). Section 5(a)(1) of the Act requires that "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" (OSHA, 1970). The general duty requirement also exists for federal agencies, which also requires that "the head of each agency shall furnish to each employee 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" (OSHA, 2014).
According to OSHA's Field Operations Manual (FOM), the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission and court precedent have established that the following criteria are required in order to prove that a violation of the general duty clause exists. If OSHA cannot substantiate each element, the citation cannot be issued:
"The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed;
The hazard was recognized;
The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and
There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard" (Lies & Mohan, 2014).
National consensus standards also play a role in OSHA's use of the general duty clause. National consensus standards are developed by industry-wide standard developing organizations, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). OSHA defines a national consensus standard as "any occupational safety and health standard or modification thereof which (1), has been adopted and promulgated by a nationally recognized standards-producing organization under procedures whereby it can be determined by the Secretary [of the Department of Labor] that persons interested and affected by the scope or provisions of the standard have reached substantial agreement on its adoption, (2) was formulated in a manner which afforded an opportunity for diverse views to be considered, and (3) has been designated as such a standard by the Secretary, after consultation with other appropriate Federal agencies" (OSHA, 1970).