OSHA Rolls Out New Enforcement Initiative

March 19, 2021

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is implementing a new enforcement initiative targeting workplaces at higher risk for COVID-19, including meatpacking facilities, health care providers, warehouses, and grocery stores.  

National Emphasis Program:  At the directive of President Biden, OSHA is implementing a National Emphasis Program (NEP) “to ensure that employees in high-hazard industries are protected from the hazard of contracting [COVID-19].”  The NEP sets a goal for COVID-19 inspections to account for at least 5% of each OSHA regional office’s annual inspections—roughly 1,600 inspections nationally.  

Inspection targets: The OSHA directive specifies that inspection targets will come from two “Master Lists” derived from industries identified by OSHA as having the highest number of workers expected to perform tasks associated with COVID-19 exposure.  

The targeted industries include: 

  • Meat processing plants  
  • Grocery stores 
  • Discount department stores 
  • General warehousing and storage 
  • Restaurants 
  • Correctional institutions  
  • Construction  
  • Manufacturing  
  • Public transportation  

As delineated in the directive, such industries also include a variety of health care providers: 

  • Physician offices 
  • Dental offices 
  • Home health care services 
  • Ambulance services 
  • General medical and surgical hospitals 
  • Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals 
  • Specialty hospitals 
  • Nursing care facilities 
  • Continuing care retirement communities  
  • Assisted living facilities 

Anti-Retaliation Focus:  The NEP also includes increased dissemination of whistleblower protection information during inspections and prompt referral of retaliation allegations to the Whistleblower Protection Program. 

Outlook: Employers in the above industries can expect an uptick in inspections and associated enforcement actions, and should, if they have not done so already, create their own COVID-19 safety protocols and clearly communicate such protocols to their employees.  Additionally, employers within the scope of the NEP should be extremely cautious of taking any adverse employment actions against employees raising COVID-19 safety issues.  The NEP is likely not in place of an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), which would set COVID-19 workplace safety minimum standards, and which was expected to be released on March 15.  Despite the missed deadline, an ETS is still expected to be released within the next week, and employers should stay tuned.