OSHA’s latest workforce protection efforts — and what employers must do to comply

September 20, 2023

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As is expected for the tenure of a Democratic president, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) under the Biden administration has strengthened its efforts to enforce safe working conditions all across America. Reports indicate that OSHA has increased its corps of workplace inspectors by about 20% since 2021, and this year alone the administration has introduced several broadscale safety initiatives. In this blog, we will highlight some of the recent news coming from OSHA and offer recommendations to help employers comply with the latest requirements.

National emphasis programs

As explained on OSHA’s website, “national emphasis programs (NEPs) are temporary programs that focus … on particular hazards and high-hazard industries. Existing and potential NEPs are evaluated using inspection data, injury and illness data, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports, peer-reviewed literature, analysis of inspection findings and other available information sources.”

In essence, OSHA uses the wealth of workplace injury and illness data at its disposal to identify areas of emerging risk or worsening safety concerns and develops specialized programs to address them. NEPs are primarily meant to be preventive, not punitive. Additionally, the focus areas covered by NEPs offer employers valuable insight into the issues that OSHA is likely to target in their enforcement efforts.

Since the start of 2023, OSHA has issued instructions on three NEPs:

  1. A revision to a 2007 program focused on the fire and explosion risks associated with combustible dusts.
  2. Reducing injuries and fatalities from falls while working at heights. As stated in the instruction, “The goal of this NEP is to significantly reduce or eliminate unprotected worker exposures to fall-related hazards in all industries that can result in serious injuries and deaths. … Most of the inspections will occur in construction because the majority of the fatal falls to lower levels each year occur on construction worksites.”
  3. Preventing hazards in warehouses, processing facilities, distribution centers and high-risk retail establishments. OSHA’s announcement of the new NEP cites the rapid growth of this sector during the past decade, as well as its injury and illness rates being significantly higher than in private industry overall. The NEP instruction spells out that inspections will focus mainly on powered industrial vehicle operations, material handling and storage, walking and working surfaces, means of egress (unobstructed exits, etc.), fire protection, and ergonomic and heat hazards.

On the topic of heat, it’s worth noting that the U.S. does not currently have a federal heat-specific workplace standard. OSHA initiated the rulemaking process in 2021, issued instructions on an NEP focused on heat in 2022, and released a hazard alert and heat illness prevention campaign this summer in response to record-high temperatures. Under OSHA’s general duty clause, employers are responsible for providing work environments that are “free from recognized hazards … likely to cause death or serious physical harm,” including extreme heat. However, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed into law a bill (nicknamed the “Death Star” by critics) that takes away cities’ authority to mandate water breaks for a significant number of in-state workers. Many are concerned the law endangers the well-being of construction workers and others working outdoors and are fighting to have it overturned.

As OSHA stated in July, it “will intensify its enforcement where workers are exposed to heat hazards, with increased inspections in high-risk industries like construction and agriculture.” (For more on protecting workers from heat hazards, listen to this Sedgwick podcast.)

Data reporting requirements

Also in July, OSHA announced an expansion of its electronic reporting requirements regarding workplace injuries and illnesses for employers in certain high-hazard industries. Among the stated goals of these changes are for OSHA to use the data “to intervene through strategic outreach and enforcement to reduce worker injuries and illnesses” and to help employees and employers “make more informed decisions about their workplace’s safety and health.”

The final rule, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2024, includes the following submission requirements:

  • Establishments with 100 or more employees in certain high-hazard industries must electronically submit information from their Form 300-Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses and Form 301-Injury and Illness Incident Report to OSHA once a year. These submissions are in addition to submission of Form 300A-Summary of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses.
  • To improve data quality, establishments are required to include their legal company name when making electronic submissions to OSHA from their injury and illness records.

The expanded requirement affects the submission of 2023 calendar year records, with the first submission deadline for the new information being March 2, 2024.

Employer action steps

To protect employees and avoid OSHA penalties, organizations of all sizes need a colleague or department to assume responsibility for safety and compliance. Small and mid-size companies that don’t have dedicated risk management teams may need to rely on expert partners who can help them navigate complexities and bolster their safety sophistication. Those responsible for workplace safety must stay on top of the latest news from OSHA for a clear understanding of the administration’s current expectations and areas of focus.

Organizations with the risk factors covered by OSHA’s current NEPs will want to take steps toward reducing these risks for their employees. Whether it’s additional safety training (see our recent blog for more), site and process assessments, investigating on-site incidents, analyzing injury and illness data, partnering with a recordkeeping expert or other improvements, being able to demonstrate a good faith effort to protect employees and enhance safety compliance will serve organizations well. Should an OSHA inspector come to your workplace, it’s best to be open and transparent and to showcase the things you’re doing well; providing documentation always helps, too.

We encourage organizations to continually work on enhancing their safety culture. Doing so not only reduces the instance of employee injury and illness, but also helps people feel safe and cared for at work. In today’s competitive labor market, having a strong culture of workplace safety is truly a win-win.

Learn more — read about how Sedgwick’s risk services and OSHA recordkeeping services can improve your workplace safety program, or contact us at [email protected].

Tags: Employees, employer, health and safety, OSHA, Safety, United States, Workforce