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OSHA Program Seeks to Protect Workers at High Risk for COVID-19 Infection, Curtail Employer Retaliation

  • OSHA launches national emphasis program focused on businesses that put the greatest number of workers at risk of COVID-19 infection
  • Program will also prioritize companies where employers have retaliated against workers for reporting COVID-19 hazards or for taking other federally protected actions
  • OSHA is expected to release a recommendation on temporary emergency standards soon

Summary by Dirk Langeveld

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched a new program aimed at protecting workers in industries where there is a serious risk of contracting COVID-19.

OSHA has established a national emphasis program focusing on businesses that put the largest number of workers at risk. It is also prioritizing places where employers retaliate against workers for issuing complaints about unsafe or unhealthy workplace conditions or otherwise taking actions that are protected under federal law.

The program was created in response to President Joe Biden’s executive order on protecting worker health and safety. Biden signed this order on his second day in office, directing OSHA to take a broad range of actions including launching a national review program to concentrate enforcement of workplace safety standards on areas where the greatest number of workers are at risk.

Under the program, OSHA will conduct inspections to enforce the agency’s previous COVID-19 enforcement actions and may make repeat inspections of sites visited in 2020. The program will remain in place for up to one year, but may be amended or terminated if pandemic conditions subside.

OSHA is also updating its Interim Enforcement Response Plan to “prioritize the use of on-site workplace inspections where practical, or a combination of on-site and remote methods.” Remote inspections will only be used if on-site inspections are determined to be unsafe. The new plan goes into effect on Thursday.

One of the key elements of Biden’s executive order was a directive to have the Secretary of Labor, acting through the Assistant Secretary of OSHA, determine revised guidance for employers and decie if any emergency temporary standards such as wearing a mask in the workplace are necessary. The order states that this work should be finished by March 15, though it is anticipated that it will be completed later this week or next week.

This action could create stronger, more binding COVID-19 safety rules. Under the Trump administration, OSHA never issued such rules and instead advised companies to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

Union leaders criticized this approach as allowing poor oversight as well as insufficient reporting requirements and inspections. However, business groups have pushed back against the possibility of emergency temporary standards, saying they would proscribe requirements that might be unsuitable for some industries.

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