While the world embraces the decline of the COVID-19 pandemic, The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is left trying to ensure high-risk industries are continuing to protect their employees. The persistent drop in infection rates and restrictions across the country has led many businesses to fall back into pre-COVID practices before it is safe to do so. OSHA has taken steps to hold employers accountable.
With many workforces still facing considerable risk, the COVID-19 Prevention Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) has been updated and a new National Emphasis Program (NEP) has been formed. Both aim to up the enforcement of work-site protections by increasing the number of complaint investigations being conducted and evaluating employers’ efforts to combat the spread of the virus more strictly.
Regardless of the size of your workforce or the structure of your operation, this shift in federal and state-level inspection efforts should be a wake-up call to keep up your pandemic protocols and pinpoint potential exposure risks still being faced by your employees.
The New National Emphasis Program (NEP)
According to SHRM, there has been more than 66,161 COVID-19-related complaints received by OSHA and 426 COVID-19-related inspections conducted since February 2020. The penalties of those initial investigations amounted to $5,441,476 – and that’s from a time when employee complaints were being dealt with somewhat informally.
Under the OSHA’s new program, the NEP intends to conduct 1,600 inspections, which is at least 5 percent of each of its regionally assigned goals. It has two main components you’ll want to be aware of:
- Its goal is to increase OSHA inspections of high-hazard industries where COVID-19 exposure is expected to be prevalent. Employers will be selected from a primary and secondary target list, which prioritizes targeted businesses by industry.
- It will increase focus on distributing anti-retaliation materials and increasing outreach programs to better prevent retaliation against workers who raise concerns about COVID-related hazards.
This OSHA-backed NEP will remain effective for one year (i.e., through March 12, 2022), unless canceled or extended by a superseding directive.
What Employers Can Do to Prepare
As an employer, you need protect workers from new variants of the virus and be conscious of employees starting to forego precautions they were once taking outside of work hours. In addition to ensuring your workforce adheres to your existing COVID-related procedures, you need to educate them through each stage of the pandemic. That includes ongoing hazard risks and changes being made for their protection at worksites.
Here are a few fundamental actions to take to lower your liability risks as the pandemic winds down:
- Encourage employees to continue all safety precautions. Regardless of your industry or region, communicating the continued need for COVID-19-related practices (frequently washing hands, wearing masks and monitoring for symptoms) will help solidify your good standing with OSHA’s latest guidelines. The more ways you can show you are nurturing hazard-reducing actions, the more likely you are to be satisfying OSHA’s expectations.
- Have documentation ready. Whether it’s records of positive cases that occurred on-the-job or just proving you’ve reviewed and updated your COVID-related policies in the past few months – records will help your standing with OSHA’s NEP. Keep documentation of employee trainings (especially quizzes or signed agreements) and revised policies readily available at all times.
- Maintain a direct line of communication to your front-line workers. Provide your employees with a way to be notified about identified hazards, positive cases and operational-changes. In order to react quickly and effectively to changes with the pandemic, some form of digital communication or alert process from HR to your managers is crucial to abiding by OSHA’s latest ETS.
- Continue cleaning and screening procedures. It might feel like a hassle, but screening employees for COVID-related symptoms and upholding CDC cleaning guidelines remain two of greatest defenses you can obtain as an operation – against the virus and OSHA investigations. Make sure your employees have access to whatever personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning materials, and sanitation stations they need.
If you’re concerned your operation may still face an investigation, OSHA offers a free On-Site Consultation Program and confidential occupational safety and health services to small and mid-sized businesses. This program can help identify the hazards faced by employees, improve your pandemic program, and even qualify your operation for a one-year exemption from routine OSHA inspections.
Pandemic Training for Ongoing Compliance
At EPAY Systems, we address hourly workforce needs directly – including those related to new OSHA directives and the health of your operation. Our workforce management system even includes a robust learning management platform to help keep your employees informed on pandemic-related changes and how they will affect your operational procedures. It allows you to track the completion and comprehension of courses with quizzes and certificates, as well.