The Occupational Safety and Health Administration exists to “ensure safe and healthful working conditions” for workers “by setting and enforcing standards and providing training, outreach, education, and assistance”
At least that’s what OSHA’s mission is on paper. Lately, the agency seems to be more interested in a different goal: generating revenue.
Organizations throughout the United States are facing heightened scrutiny from OSHA on both national and local levels. Inspectors are showing up and not leaving until they find a workplace health or safety issue for which they can fine the employer $10,000 or more.
This is increasingly happening through “programmed inspections,” which flow from OSHA’s Special Emphasis Programs—the National Emphasis Programs and Local Emphasis Programs.
Here’s what you need to know about OSHA’s current priorities and how these programs and inspections work:
State OSHA and Local Emphasis Program Map
While people commonly think of OSHA as a centralized federal agency, it operates more like a coalition of regional teams.
OSHA has 10 regional offices across the United States. Each office is headquartered in a major city, and covers workplaces throughout the states and territories surrounding that city. These offices each have their own regulatory and enforcement priorities, known as Local Emphasis Programs—more on that in a moment.
In addition to the regional offices, many states have their own OSHA equivalents called OSHA-approved State Plans, or just “state OSHA.” Every state OSHA’s requirements are at least as stringent as federal OSHA’s—and often more so, with additional rules pertaining to the state’s legislative priorities and environmental realities. For example, Cal/OSHA (California’s State Plan) has specific regulations and guidance about wildfire smoke that go beyond OSHA’s federal rules.
Currently, 21 states and Puerto Rico have OSHA-approved State Plans that cover private and public employers. A few more states have State Plans that only apply to the public sector. All other territories are overseen by OSHA on the federal level. For a full list of state plans, click here.
NEPs and LEPs: OSHA’s Priorities on the Federal and State Levels
While OSHA wants to find all health and safety issues, the agency pays especially close attention to specific violations. On the federal level, these are known as National Emphasis Programs, or NEPs for short.
NEPs are temporary—they come and go as rates and causes of workforce injury, illness, and death change.
As of October 2020, there are 9 NEPs in place:
- Combustible Dust
- Hazardous Machinery
- Hexavalent Chromium
- Primary Metal Industries
- Process Safety Management (PSM)
- Silica, Crystalline
- Trenching and Excavation
In addition to NEPs, there are also Local Emphasis Programs and Regional Emphasis Programs, which focus on high-priority workplace safety issues in a given state or region. According to OSHA, LEPs “are enforcement strategies designed and implemented at the regional office and/or area office levels” and are “intended to address hazards or industries that pose a particular risk to workers in the office’s jurisdiction.”
To learn what LEPs are active in your region, interact with the map above.
For a complete list of current LEPs, click here.
Watch Out for Those Programmed Inspections
Employers need to pay close attention to NEPs and LEPs, as these programs not only reflect high-risk areas in the workplace, but also guide the actions of federal and state OSHA. NEPs and LEPs direct what OSHA calls “programmed inspections,” where agents choose from a list of facilities and choose one at random to investigate.
It works like a negative lottery. If your organization falls under the standard industrial classification code for a particular program, OSHA could show up at any point to conduct a programmed inspection.
Other Reasons OSHA May Visit Your Facility
Aside from programmed inspections, there are a few other reasons OSHA may decide to visit your organization and look for that reason to hit you with a 5-figure penalty:
- They’ve received one or more employee complaints. If one of your employees is not happy with the way things are going and chooses not to seek help internally, they can file a complaint with OSHA. Typically, if it’s not a major complaint or OSHA believes the hazard isn’t serious, you’ll receive a letter and be able to address the matter in writing. Otherwise, if the complaint seems to reflect imminent danger, it may lead to an inspection.
- There’s been a fatality or serious injury. Whenever an employee is admitted to the hospital, suffers an amputation, or loses an eye, you’re required to report the incident within 24 hours. Fatalities must be reported within 8 hours. When an organization fails to report such an incident, or fails to report it in a timely manner, an OSHA inspection usually follows.
- They’ve gotten a tip from another agency. Referrals can precipitate investigations. If an inspector from the Environmental Protection Agency visits your facility, for instance, and witnesses something OSHA should investigate, they’ll refer the matter to OSHA.
- They’re following up on a previous inspection. Once you’ve undergone an OSHA visit, you can expect agents to return to your site to make sure you’ve completed everything.
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