OSHA Implements Sharp Focus on the Continuing Battle with COVID-19 in the Workplace
As the pandemic continued to cause hardship and disruption to employees and employers throughout the 2020 year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) faced a significant amount of scrutiny from the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). During an audit of the agency, the OIG faulted OSHA for its failure to protect workers by reducing the number of on-site inspections while complaints were increasing, and failure to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) for COVID-19. OSHA received 15% more complaints in 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, but performed 50% fewer inspections.
On March 12, 2021, OSHA launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP), focusing its efforts and enforcement on companies at which large numbers of workers face serious risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19 infections. The NEP also focuses on protecting workers who face retaliation for whistleblowers related actions.
The targeted industries for the NEP remain the front-line essential workforce that has been at high risk from the beginning of the pandemic. These industries include ambulance and home healthcare services; correctional facilities; department stores, groceries, supermarkets, and restaurants; healthcare and long-term care facilities; meatpacking and poultry processing facilities; and warehouses and storage facilities. Construction, critical manufacturing, energy, food and agriculture, and transportation and logistics sectors are also secondary industries targeted by the NEP.
To rectify the criticism OSHA faced on the reduction of on-site Inspectors, the agency issued an updated Interim Enforcement Response Plan, which prioritizes the use of on-site inspections where needed. To reduce the potential for COVID-19 exposure to OSHA Inspectors and the employees working at the associated facility, these inspections can be a combination of on-site and remote assessments. At Environmental Standards, our Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) Team has found that a combination of on-site and remote auditing can be just as, if not more, efficient than a fully on-site audit and will also reduce travel costs. Audit processes such as documentation review and personnel interviews are areas where remote auditing can step in effectively.
Although a few states, such as California, Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia, adopted emergency standards or guidelines during the pandemic, there remains to be no federal standard for COVID-19 exposure, but that does not mean that the NEP cannot be enforced. COVID-19 applicable standards that may be included as part of OSHA inspections include occupational injury and illness recordkeeping and reporting, personal protective equipment (PPE), respiratory protection, sanitation, accident-prevention signs and tags, access to employee exposure and medical records, as well as the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act 0f 1970.
OSHA is not the only one being asked to step up its game on the issue of COVID-19. Earlier this year, the Biden Administration issued a stronger employer guidance on protecting employees from COVID-19. This guidance recommends that employers take preventative measures such as utilizing the hierarchy of controls to identify control measures, considering telework and better ventilation systems, training on all aspects of COVID-19, cleaning and disinfecting the workplace, installing physical barriers, and performing a COVID-19 hazard assessment. While even OSHA struggled in some ways to manage this hazard, employers are still required to provide a safe and healthy work environment free of hazards, including COVID-19.
With OSHA now in full swing to ensure compliance and the current Administration offering new guidance for employers, it is important for employers to ensure they have a good handle on COVID-19 and their overall health & safety program. Environmental Standards’ EHS professionals can provide COVID-19 support in the form of COVID-19 protocol development, COVID-19 exposure assessment, developing reopening/restart plan, COVID-19 testing & management services, and on-site health and safety oversight. To learn more about our EHS support or if you have questions for our EHS professionals, please contact Cody Dye or Shaun Gilday.