OSHA Launches “National Emphasis Program” to Protect Workers from COVID-19

Workers in masks

A National Emphasis Program rolled out by OSHA is looking to protect employees from contracting COVID-19 on the job by targeting businesses that put the most workers at risk.

The new National Emphasis Program (NEP) arises from a January 2021 Executive Order issued by President Joe Biden that instructed the agency, among other things, to launch a national COVID-19 enforcement effort and evaluate potential emergency temporary workplace standards specific to the coronavirus by March 15.

While OSHA has yet to issue any emergency temporary workplace standards, it did meet its goal to implement an enforcement program that puts a major target on certain employers. The NEP also includes a focus on ensuring workers are protected from retaliation after raising concerns about unsafe conditions or exercising other rights protected by federal law.

Some highlights from OSHA’s COVID-19 NEP:

  • Heightened enforcement will target employers, industries, and activities that put the “largest number of workers at serious risk.”
  • Enforcement efforts will also target employers and workplaces with the most COVID-related complaints, including meatpacking and processing plants, grocery stores, and correctional facilities.
  • Inspections will prioritize cases involving death or multiple hospitalizations due to occupational exposure to COVID-19.
  • OSHA’s targeting strategy will include follow-up inspections to ensure abatement and monitor the efficacy of the agency’s enforcement and guidance efforts.
  • The NEP will be in effect for up to a year, but OSHA can amend or cancel the program if the pandemic subsides.

In addition to its National Emphasis Plan, OSHA also updated its Interim Enforcement Response Plan to provide guidance to Area Offices and Compliance Officers on how to handle COVID-19-related complaints, referrals, and severe illness reports in alignment with the NEP.

The Bottom Line for Employers: Be Prepared

While the possibility of temporary or more binding safety rules related to COVID-19 are not out of the question, employers should still be utilizing current guidance and best practices to ensure compliance with existing General Duty standards, respiratory protection, PPE, and other standards used by OSHA in the absence of any specific rules.

This is especially true for employers on OSHA’s target list, including:

  • Employers in high-risk industries, such as health care, grocery stores, discount department stores, meat packing or food processing facilities, restaurants, and general warehousing and storage facilities;
  • Employers with workers who engage in high-risk activities, such as prolonged or repeated contact with sick people; and
  • Employers who have been the target of complaints or retaliation claims.

At Hendershot Cowart P.C., our OSHA law team has closely tracked the agency’s enforcement efforts since the beginning of the pandemic. Backed by decades of experience, our attorneys are available to assist employers across a range of industries – including health care, construction, food processing, food service, and warehousing – in creating comprehensive compliance programs that keep workers safe and limit risks associated with costly and time-consuming inspections and alleged violations.

Our Houston-based attorneys counsel clients across Texas and the nation. Call (713) 909-7323 or contact us to speak with a lawyer.

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