OSHA To Focus Enforcement Of COVID-19 Protections Inspections

Liz Carey

Washington, D.C. (WorkersCompensation.com) – The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it will return to doing on-site workplace inspections where practical. At the start of the pandemic, OSHA turned to remote methods. The agency announced it has updated its Interim Enforcement Response Plan and says it will only use remote-only inspections if it determines that on-site inspections would be unsafe.

The announcement came as OSHA announced that it will focus on COVID-19 protections inspections. In a press release, the agency said that in response to President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, that it would be launching a national emphasis program (NEP). According to OSHA, NEPs are temporary programs that focus OSHA’s resources on particular hazards and high-hazard industries. In this instance, the NEP would focus its enforcement efforts on coronavirus-related inspections.

OSHA said it would be focusing on companies that put the largest number of workers at serious risk of contracting the coronavirus, as well as prioritizing employers who retaliate against workers who complain about unsafe or unhealthy 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, especially for the many who have no other protection,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick. “This program seeks to substantially reduce or eliminate coronavirus exposure for workers in companies where risks are high, and to protect workers who raise concerns that their employer is failing to protect them from the risks of exposure.”

The agency said these NEP inspections would add to the agency’s previous coronavirus enforcement efforts, and will include some follow-up inspections of worksites inspected in 2020. The NEP strategy will allow the agency to monitor the effectiveness of its enforcement and guidance efforts. OSHA said the NEP will be in place for up to one year, but that the agency has the flexibility to amend or cancel the program if the pandemic subsides.

“With more people being vaccinated and the number of infections trending down, we know there is light at the end of the tunnel. But until we are past this pandemic workers deserve a Labor Department that is looking out for their health,” Frederick said.

From the start of the pandemic to Dec. 31, 2020, OSHA issued citations in 300 inspections, resulting in more than $3.9 million in fines. Inspectors have cited employers for failing to implement a written respiratory protection program; failing to provide a medical evaluation, respirator fit test, training on the proper use of a respirator and failing to provide personal protective equipment; failure to report an injury, illness or fatality; failure to record an injury or illness on OSHA recordkeeping forms and failure to comply with the General Duty Clause of the OSHA Act of 1970.

State Plans

State OSHA plans vary in their requirements to protect employees from the coronavirus, and many of them have implemented similar enforcement effort like OSHA’s NEP. The agency said it couldn’t require states to adopt an NEP, it strongly encouraged them to.

In California, CalOSHA performed 150 COVID inspection between August 2020 and February 2021, that resulted in an estimated $3.5 million in fines. About 80 of the inspections were opened because of a complaint or referral, while almost 60 of the inspections were related to an “accident” or “fatality.” The most frequently cited industries were supermarkets/grocery stores and manufacturing.

Most of the citations were tied to failure to report serious illness or death of an employee, failure to prevent injury or illness, and failure to record work-related illnesses or fatalities on OSHA forms.

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