A Recap of OSHA’s Recent National Emphasis Programs (NEPs)

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A Recap of OSHA’s Recent National Emphasis Programs (NEPs)

OSHA’s been busy over the last couple of years, and most discussion of their activity focuses on their rulemaking.

OSHA’s been busy over the last couple of years, and most discussion of their activity focuses on their rulemaking. But OSHA’s mission encompasses enforcement as well as regulatory action, and National Emphasis Programs (NEPs) comprise an important part of their strategy to plan and conduct enforcement inspections. OSHA has also been busy rolling out new NEPs targeting a variety of industries and areas of safety management. EHS managers need to understand these enforcement priorities to be better prepared for potential regulatory inspections. Here’s a summary of recent activity on NEPs and key takeaways.

What are OSHA NEPs?

OSHA NEPs are written statements of policy and procedure on a single subject, which generally include implementation guidelines and responsibilities for the Agency's affected offices. Because OSHA is responsible for protecting the safety of employees at all worksites across the US covered under the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, they need a strategy to focus their enforcement efforts, so that they’re prioritizing the establishments and work activities with the most significant safety risks.

NEPs do not create new regulatory obligations or modify existing regulations. Still, understanding OSHA’s NEPs gives you important insights into the agency’s enforcement priorities. This understanding helps you, as an employer, know how OSHA is prioritizing which establishments to inspect and what their Certified Safety & Health Officials (CSHOs) will be looking for once they conduct inspections.

What NEPs Has OSHA Issued Recently?

OSHA’s activity in issuing new NEPs fluctuates over time, based on agency priorities. For example, OSHA only issued one new NEP (on amputations in manufacturing industries) during the entire calendar year of 2019, along with several geographically targeted Regional Emphasis Programs (REPs). Since April 2022, OSHA has issued three new NEPs, which indicates a shift in enforcement priorities. Here’s a closer look at these three recent NEPs and their implications.

OSHA’s Heat Exposure NEP

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the effects of hazardous heat exposure resulted in an average of 35 fatalities per year and an average of 2,700 cases with multiple days away from work between 2015 and 2019. The actual numbers may be higher, because BLS indicates that heat-related fatalities may be underreported and improperly diagnosed due to failures to document when exposures to heat caused or contributed to “official” causes of death, such as heart attacks.

OSHA’s efforts to address these trends resulted in the agency issuing NEP on “Outdoor and Indoor Heat-Related Hazards” on April 8, 2022 that lays out OSHA’s inspection and enforcement priorities to support reduction of occupational illnesses and fatalities from heat exposure.

Here’s a high-level overview of the NEP.

Site Selection: OSHA’s NEP contains an Appendix A of “Target Industries for the NEP” listing the industry sectors, represented by North American Industrial Classification (NAIC) codes, they’ll be focusing upon for inspections, chosen because of data indicating higher risks of heat-related illnesses. Not surprisingly, Appendix A includes various subsectors of the construction industry, as shown in the image below.

Appendix A also includes subsectors as diverse as restaurants, bakeries, facilities support services, automobile dealers, farming, chemical manufacturing, vehicle manufacturing, and wholesaling of various goods. Consult Appendix A for the full list.

Timing of Inspections: Programmed inspections will occur on days that the National Weather Service (NWS) has issued heat warnings or advisories for the local area. Appendix G of the NEP lists the types of NWS weather alerts you should know, both because they’re important for the protection of your employees, and because OSHA is more likely to conduct inspections on those days. On days that the NWS issues an alert listed in Appendix G, OSHA CSHOs will conduct inspections of facilities in the affected area with NAIC codes listed in Appendix A.

Focus of Heat-Related Inspections: CSHOs conducting a site inspection will open or refer a heat-related inspection for hazardous heat conditions indicated by OSHA 300 logs or 301 Incident Reports the employer maintains under the Recordkeeping Standard. CSHOs will also open cases if employees bring heat-related hazards such as lack of access to rest or shade, lack of acclimatization, and lack of proper training about heat hazards, to their attention.

OSHA’s NEP on Falls

Fatalities caused by falls are a leading cause of death for workers. The tables below compile data on occupational falls from BLS and OSHA Information System (OIS) data between 2014 and 2021.

All Industries

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

Total fatalities

4,821

4,836

5,190

5,147

5,250

5,333

4,764

5,190

Fatal falls – slips/trips/falls

818

800

849

887

791

880

805

850

Fatal falls to lower level

660

648

697

713

615

711

645

680

Construction

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

Total fatalities

899

937

991

971

1,008

1,061

1,008

986

Fatal falls – slips/trips/falls

350

364

384

386

338

*

368

390

Fatal falls to lower level

345

350

370

366

320

*

351

378

*= BLS data not available for 2019

OSHA issued an NEP (effective as of May 1, 2023) with to “significantly reduce or eliminate unprotected worker exposures to fall-related hazards in all industries that can result in serious injuries and deaths.”

The NEP notes that if OSHA inspectors observe employees working at height in other non-construction work activities, they may initiate an inspection if approved by area office management.

CSHOs can initiate inspections whenever they observe someone working at heights during the CSHO’s normal work-day travel or while traveling between other OSHA inspections. Also, the CSHO may expand the inspection scope based on evidence from injury and illness records, plain view hazards, or employee interviews of other potential safety and health hazards or violations.

If you’re an employer at a worksite that involves working at heights, especially in the construction industry or a work location that involves any of the ten activities listed above, you now have an elevated potential for OSHA inspections related to fall hazards.

OSHA’s Warehousing and Distribution NEP

BLS data shows that warehousing and distribution center operations have significantly higher overall rates of occupational injuries as well as a higher Days Away, Restricted or Transferred (DART) rate than the average rates for all industries. Common causes of injuries in this industry include “struck by” incidents, heat exposure hazards, and risks of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

OSHA issued an NEP for the warehousing/distributions industry which became effective July 13, 2023. The table below summarizes the specific NAIC codes associated with warehousing/distribution OSHA is targeting under this NEP.

NAIC Codes

Establishments

491110

Postal service (processing & distribution centers only)

492110

Couriers and express delivery services

492210

Local messengers and local delivery

493110

General warehousing and storage

493120

Refrigerated warehousing and storage

493130

Farm product warehousing and storage

493190

Other warehousing and storage

OSHA CSHOs may also conduct partial safety inspections of retail establishments associated with warehousing/distribution operations.

During the opening conference, the CSHO will review OSHA 300 logs, 300A injury and illness summaries, and 301 incident reports for the current year and three previous calendar years to identify recorded injuries and illnesses associated with the focused hazards covered by the NEP. When inspecting an establishment that needed to electronically submit 300A data to OSHA via the Injury Tracking Application (ITA) but did not submit, CSHOs will follow OSHA’s Interim Enforcement Procedures for Failure to Submit Electronic Illness and Injury Records under 29 CFR 1904.41(a)(1).

Notice that the NEP identifies heat exposure hazards among common causes of injuries in warehousing and distribution. CSHOS who observe heat-related hazards occurring during inspections can expand the scope to include provisions of the heat exposure NEP.

What are Major Takeaways from OSHA’s Most Recent NEPs?

Let’s boil down our analysis of recent NEPs into a handful of high-level takeaways.

There Are Plenty of NEPs, But Also Plenty of Coordination. While OSHA is issuing more NEPs, they’re also thinking about how to coordinate NEP efforts and find ways for CSHOs to conduct inspections pursuant to multiple NEPs when warranted. Some establishments have multiple ways to find themselves on OSHA’s inspection list, and elevated risks of noncompliance findings should OSHA visit them.

Get Your Injury and Illness Records in Order. CSHOs may review your injury and illness records. In fact, the NEPs for Falls, Heat Exposures and Warehousing/Distribution state that review of these records is part of the inspection scope, and that CSHOs may expand their inspection or take additional enforcement actions based on their records review. You’ll need a solid, gap-free recordkeeping system.

Have an Active Inspection Program. Inspections are essential to effective safety management because they help ensure you’re doing everything you should be doing. Inspections are central to areas of safety management addressed by these NEPs, including forklift safety in the warehousing/distribution industry (OSHA requires at least daily inspections).

With the right tools in place, like best-in-class safety software, you’ll have an easier time managing these basic areas of safety and reduce your risk of noncompliance findings if OSHA knocks on your door.

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