The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a National Emphasis Program (NEP) on March 12, 2021, focusing on industries where workers are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. In response to a January 2021 executive order by the Biden administration, the NEP also aims to ensure workers are protected against retaliation for issuing complaints about unhealthy or unsafe working conditions, or other rights protected by federal law.
The NEP expires one year from its effective date, although OSHA can cancel or extend the NEP beyond that timeframe. OSHA strongly encourages all OSHA-State Plans to adopt this NEP, but it is not mandatory. A State Plan must notify OSHA within 60 days whether it has a substantially similar policy in place, and whether it intends to adopt the NEP.
OSHA has specifically identified the healthcare sector (e.g., hospitals, home health care, assisted living facilities) and other industries where workers are at a higher risk of close contact with one another and the general public (e.g., restaurants, grocery stores, animal processing plants). OSHA will also conduct follow-up inspections (in-person) at workplaces that were previously cited for COVID-19-related violations.
Employers should take note that because OSHA has been educating employers on ways to protect workers from the coronavirus throughout the pandemic, the typical 90-day outreach period that precedes an inspection does not apply under the NEP. This means that enforcement of the NEP may begin as early as two weeks from its effective date.
Employers should continue to make sure they are maintaining a plan to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in their workplace(s) and prepare for a potential increase in OSHA enforcement efforts.