OSHA's General Duty Clause in poultry processing

OSHA has begun using the General Duty Clause to cite poultrycompanies for failing to protect employees from ergonomic hazards.

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Paul Pressley
Paul Pressley

Since its creation in 1970, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has issued numerous standards addressing employer responsibilities to reduce specific workplace hazards. To address workplace hazards for which no specific standards exist, Section 5(a), commonly called the General Duty Clause, can be applied. Lacking an ergonomics standard, OSHA has begun using the General Duty Clause to cite various industries, including poultry companies, for failing to protect employees from ergonomic hazards. With respect to our industry, we believe this is an improper use of the General Duty Clause, and OSHA is failing to recognize the poultry industry's longstanding and impressive efforts to address ergonomic concerns.

This clause, included in the Occupational Safety & Health Act, basically states that the employer has the general duty to “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.”

Despite OSHA’s attempt to enact an ergonomics standard in 2000, Congress overturned the standard after determining it to be ambiguous and too costly, and there is still no standard today.

Improper use of General Duty Clause

Thirty years ago, before ergonomics became a buzzword, poultry safety professionals and some of the nation’s leading ergonomists and physicians led the way and developed the "Medical, Ergonomics and Training Program for Repetitive Motion Disorders – A Guide for the Poultry Industry," which became the roadmap for a very successful industry approach to reducing musculoskeletal disorders. As recently as a decade ago, the poultry industry worked closely with OSHA to develop “Prevention of Musculoskeletal Injuries in Poultry Processing,” which became the voluntary guidance document for the industry to follow. In just the last decade alone, using many of these practices, the industry has reduced its workplace illness rate (which includes musculoskeletal disorders related to ergonomics) by 63 percent.

And it’s not just ergonomics. Equally impressive gains have been made by the poultry industry in reducing all types of workplace injuries. Studies by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveal that poultry processing plants have reduced the total rate of workplace injuries and illnesses by 80 percent since 1994.

Invoking the general duty clause when so much progress has been made is perplexing and incorrectly portrays an undeserved negative image of the poultry industry. Perhaps not so perplexing is the fact that OSHA seems to react to complaints filed by unions or the Southern Poverty Law Center, an activist group with a long history of animosity toward the poultry industry, rather than seek to collaborate with an industry committed to providing a safe workplace. The U.S. Poultry & Egg Association (USPOULTRY) recognizes the effort and appreciates the proactive stance taken by the entire industry in reducing ergonomic related injuries. 

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