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OSHA Launches a COVID-19 National Emphasis Program

On March 12, 2021, OSHA announced that it has launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP) focusing enforcement efforts at companies where there is the largest number of workers at serious risk of contracting COVID-19. The program also prioritizes employers that retaliate against workers for complaints about unsafe or unhealthy conditions, or for exercising other rights protected by federal law.


Why was the NEP Established and What is its Goal?

The NEP is in response to the January 21, 2021 Presidential Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety, which directs OSHA to focus its enforcement efforts related to COVID-19 on violations that put the largest number of workers at increased risk for acquiring COVID-19 in the workplace, and on employers that engage in retaliation against employees who complain about unsafe or unhealthful conditions related to SARS-CoV-2 exposure.

Per the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick, “This program seeks to substantially reduce or eliminate coronavirus exposure for workers in companies where risks are high, and to protect workers who raise concerns that their employer is failing to protect them from the risks of exposure.”

This NEP will include added focus ensuring that workers are protected from retaliation through information sharing and prompt referrals. Workers requesting inspections, complaining of SARS-CoV-2 exposure, or reporting injuries or illnesses or retaliation, may be covered under one or more whistleblower protection statutes.

What Industries are the Focus of the NEP?

The NEP targets industries that have workers with a high frequency of close contact exposure to SARS-CoV-2. OSHA anticipates that the majority of the inspections will continue to occur in the general industry, particularly in healthcare, based on current OSHA enforcement data showing higher COVID-19-related complaints, referrals, and severe incident reports at healthcare worksites.

A list of healthcare and non-healthcare industries with NAICS codes having among the highest numbers of OSHA-recorded fatalities, complaints, referrals, inspections, COVID-19-related violations, and Hazard Alert Letters issued since April of 2020 is provided in Appendix A of the NEP COVID-19 Directive 2021-01 (CPL-03). Non-healthcare industries included on this list are meat and poultry processing and general warehousing and storage, among others.

A secondary list of targeted industries is provided in Appendix B of the Directive for additional non-healthcare industries not captured in Appendix A, for workers who maintain critical business operations or would otherwise help to maintain a healthy work environment, and are likely to be at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. This list includes chemical manufacturing, miscellaneous critical manufacturing, and building construction.

In addition, local area OSHA offices may add to the list of establishments targeted for inspection based on information from appropriate sources including referrals from the local health department, media referrals, local knowledge of establishments, and previous OSHA inspection history.

How Many OSHA Inspections Related to the NEP are Planned?

Per the NEP, each OSHA Region will dedicate a high percentage of inspections (at least 5% or 1,600 nationally) to COVID-19 until further notice. The NEP will also target worksites previously inspected for COVID-19-related hazards with follow-up inspections to ensure effective abatement. It is likely that OSHA will revisit any establishment that received COVID-19 citations in 2020.

The OSHA Directive on the NEP is effective for no more than 12 months from the effective date (March 12, 2021), unless canceled or extended by a superseding Directive.

For additional information on the COVID-19 National Emphasis Program or for general COVID-19 return-to-work planning assistance, please email [email protected].

This blog was written by Beth Graham, our Associate Director of Quality, Research, and Training who has been with Safety Partners Inc. for the last 11 years.

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