On March 12th, 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new program aimed towards improving COVID-related workplace safety. OSHA created the National Emphasis Program (NEP) in response to an Executive Order issued by President Joseph Biden in January.

Overview of the NEP

After announcing the COVID-related workplace safety NEP, OSHA stated that the majority of its efforts will involve coronavirus-related inspections. Namely, the NEP focuses enforcement efforts on companies that put large numbers of workers at serious risk of contracting COVID-19. OSHA will also target employers that retaliate against workers who:

  • exercise rights protected by federal law; or
  • make complaints about unsafe or unhealth conditions.

“This deadly pandemic has taken a staggering toll on U.S. workers and their families. We have a moral obligation to do what we can to protect workers. . .” said Jim Frederick. Fredrick is the current principal deputy assistant secretary of labor.

Accordingly, the NEP inspections enhance the agency’s previous coronavirus enforcement efforts. The new focus will also include some follow-up inspections of worksites previously inspected in 2020. The program’s focused strategy ensures abatement and includes monitoring the effectiveness of OSHA’s enforcement and guidance efforts. As of now, the program will remain in effect for up to one year. OSHA, however, does have the flexibility to amend or cancel the NEP as the pandemic either grows or subsides.

Recently, some OSHA state plans have adopted varying workplace safety requirements to protect employees from coronavirus. According to OSHA, many of those requirements have implemented enforcement programs similar to the NEP. While it does not require it, OSHA strongly encourages other state plans to adopt in full the agency’s NEP. State plans must notify federal OSHA of their intention to adopt the NEP within 60 days after its issuance.

Updates to the Interim Enforcement Response Plan

In a related action, OSHA has also updated its Interim Enforcement Response Plan (IERP). The updated IERP provides new instructions and guidance to officers enforcing COVID-related workplace safety regulations. Specifically, the IERP prioritizes the use of on-site workplace inspections where practical, or a combination of on-site and remote methods. OSHA will only use remote-only inspections if the agency determines that on-site inspections are not safe. On March 18th, 2021, OSHA will rescind the May 26th, 2020, memorandum on this topic. After that removal, the new guidance will go into and remain in effect until further notice.

Employer Takeaways

Prior to the release of the NEP, OSHA has already been fining employers for coronavirus violations. In order to offer information on how it is enforcing regulations during the pandemic, OSHA previously released an FAQ. Employers should examine that document to verify they are in compliance with those standards and other COVID-related workplace safety guidance.