OSHA's COVID-19 National Emphasis Program

Posted by Clarion Safety Systems on 1st Jun 2021

In March 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched a new National Emphasis Program (NEP) to address workplace COVID-19 concerns . The new OSHA COVID guidelines summarize a series of new policies and regulations designed to minimize worker exposure to the COVID-19 virus. The COVID guidelines have classified several industries as “high-risk” and provide directions to limit close contact exposures.

The new guidelines were implemented in direct response to the Executive Order issued by President Biden in January 2021. The Executive Order gave OSHA until March 15 to launch a new COVID-19 emergency temporary standard if necessary. While no such measure has been issued, the new NEP is effective and OSHA can still implement an emergency temporary standard in the future. Therefore, all employers should familiarize themselves with the new guidelines and prepare their employees and workplace for a potential inspection. 

NEP Overview

NEPs are provisional directives that provide guidelines for specific hazards and high-risk industries. New NEPs are developed as a result of newly identified needs or threats that require OSHA resources. OSHA implements NEP programs to ensure U.S. employees have safe and healthy workplace environments. NEPs help standardize safety standards by providing training, education, outreach, and technical assistance. All U.S. employers must abide by all OSHA regulations. 

Guidelines in the COVID-19 NEP

The new NEP seeks to limit the risk of COVID-19 workplace exposure by implementing programmed inspections at facilities classified as operating in a high-risk area or industry. The NEP started on March 12, 2021, and is effective for one calendar year. OSHA can extend the plan if necessary.

The NEP allows OSHA personnel to inspect or re-inspect facilities without providing the employer the customary 90 days’ notice. Under the new plan, OSHA personnel are not required to contact the employer beforehand and can partake in unannounced inspections.

OSHA and the Department of Labor strongly encourage states to adopt new safety standards, but it is up to state officials' discretion whether NEPs are implemented. In California and other states with an OSHA State Plan (where the state’s government handles enforcement of safety regulations), it’s up to the state to notify federal OSHA personnel within two months of the effective data if the state intends to adopt the NEP or instead adopt a state-level strategy. 

Defining High-Risk Worksites and Priorities for OSHA Inspections

The NEP relies on OSHA area offices to select worksites and carry out inspections. The main OSHA office is responsible for providing each area office with a master list containing the NAICS code of all high-risk worksites. The list includes several frequent offender worksites that may be chosen for inspections. These worksites include nursing homes, healthcare facilities, meat processing plants, restaurants, and supermarkets. The list also provides the NAICS codes for industries with regular contact with other workers and the public. These industries include construction, food and beverage facilities, and manufacturers.

The official guidance provided by the main OSHA office instructs area offices to prioritize inspections of worksites that have known COVID-19 deaths or hospitalizations among employees . These lists are simply standards and it is up to each area office to officially inspect worksites for compliance. Employees can check area office lists to determine if their worksite is likely to be examined. 

OSHA Inspection Procedures

Typically, an OSHA inspection commences when personnel enter the worksite and provide an opening statement to employees and managers. OSHA personnel can then gather information by requesting documents, walking through the facility, interviewing employees, and reviewing employee health records. The new NEP provides specific guidance on inspections and clarifies when citations can be issued for non-compliant employers.

The NEP also provides guidance on the issues of whistleblowing and worker retaliation. To ensure workers are protected from retaliation if they report non-compliant behavior, employers are urged to report inappropriate behavior to the Whistleblower Protection Program. Personnel can also provide anti-retaliation information during inspections and link employers or workers to resources if necessary.

OSHA aims to perform on-site inspections rather than remote inspections. To reduce health risks when performing checks, OSHA will provide inspectors with protective equipment, including masks and gloves. During the examination, OSHA personnel will evaluate the risk of the worksite and take all the precautions necessary.

To prepare for OSHA’s increase in inspections, employers should have a written COVID-19 policy and ensure that all of their health and safety protocols are up to date. They should also implement visible signs of COVID-19 prevention measures, updated training documentation, and evidence of continual workplace cleaning and disinfection.

Continued OSHA COVID-19 Compliance

For the most up-to-date information on OSHA compliance related to COVID-19, you can check the OSHA website regularly for updates.

And, keep Clarion Safety in mind when updating your visual safety communications in line with changes and regulations to your internal policies. We have a full line-up of COVID-19 safety signs and floor markers - and limitless custom options! We're always here to answer any questions you may have on warnings and identification.