Virus Protection Program Aims To Help U.S. Workers Stay Safe

A new program aimed at helping to protect “high risk” workers from contracting COVID-19 was announced this week by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  The “national emphasis program” is designed to aid in safety enforcement efforts and comes after President Joe Biden issued an executive order about protecting worker health. 

At target in the program are those employers that put “the largest number of workers at serious risk of contracting the coronavirus,” the agency announced Friday.  What’s more, there are built-in safeguards to help those workers who file complaints about unsafe working conditions.  

“This deadly pandemic has taken a staggering toll on U.S. workers and their families. We have a moral obligation to do what we can to protect workers, especially for the many who have no other protection,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick. “This program seeks to substantially reduce or eliminate coronavirus exposure for workers in companies where risks are high, and to protect workers who raise concerns that their employer is failing to protect them from the risks of exposure.”

Inspections through the national emphasis program, or NEP, will take place at worksites visited in 2020 and are to “enhance” the agency’s previous coronavirus enforcement efforts.   It’s set to remain in place for a year, though OSHA can change or cancel the program if the pandemic subsides. 

“With more people being vaccinated and the number of infections trending down, we know there is light at the end of the tunnel. But until we are past this pandemic workers deserve a Labor Department that is looking out for their health,” added Frederick.

States like California are encouraged to adopt the NEP laid out and must notify OSHA within 60 days if they decide to do so.

Businesses that are most likely to be targeted in enforcement efforts include those with “higher potential for exposure” like: hospitals, emergency response settings, nursing homes and assisted living, laboratories, morgues, schools, businesses, manufacturing, meat, poultry, and other food processing, and some high-volume retail settings.

The NEP comes after a Jan. 21 Biden signed an “executive order on protecting worker health and safety.

“The Federal Government must take swift action to reduce the risk that workers may contract COVID-19 in the workplace,” the order states in part.  “That will require issuing science-based guidance to help keep workers safe from COVID-19 exposure, including with respect to mask-wearing; partnering with State and local governments to better protect public employees; enforcing worker health and safety requirements; and pushing for additional resources to help employers protect employees.”

Since OSHA is focused on the safety of all workers, the agency pointed out as in-person inspections pick back up, they will be sure to follow all necessary protocols.   Remote inspections may still occur, but only when onsite inspections aren’t safe.