Occupational Safety and Health Administration Chief Thorne G. Auchter has decided to make it tougher for his inspectors to cite employers under the agency's "general duty clause." That's the clause that inspectors have used when they thought a violation had occurred, but weren't quite sure whether there was an OSHA rule or standard covering it.

The catch-all clause says an employer (take a big breath now) "shall furnish to each of his employes 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 employes."

Well, that could mean just about anything, employers complained. Auchter agreed. So beginning today, inspectors must meet these three criteria before issuing general duty citations. The hazard must be "recognized"; it must be a serious threat to worker health or safety, and there must be a feasible means to correct the problem.

From now on, before an inspector can issue a citation, he must prove that the problem has been "recognized" as a bona-fide hazard either by industrial experts or by the employer through company safety reports. If neither the industry nor employer considers the problem a hazard, an inspector can stick his neck out and use his own "common sense" to issue the citation, the new regulation says, but only "in flagrant cases."

If an inspector thinks the new rules prevent him from correcting a serious problem, he can ask the area OSHA director to investigate. If the director agrees that a hazard exists, he will send a letter to the company and employe representatives describing the problem, offering possible solutions and asking the employer to fix the deficiency, officials said.

Auchter said the new rules will help save time and money. From 1972-80, OSHA inspectors issued about 14,000 citations under the general duty clause. Employers contested about 7,000 of them, and 437 of the contested cases eventually ended up in court. Employers won 220 of those judgments, and OSHA 217.