Stephen Scott

As the character Eddard Stark once famously said, “OSHA is coming.” OK, maybe I took some liberty with the phrase, but the truth of the words ring true. In light of the better weather, vaccine rollout, and individual burnout from the pandemic, now is the time for constant vigilance. The need for it (aside from the health and wellness aspect) is the adoption on March 12 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for COVID-19. Adoption became effective immediately and signals the agency will devote more resources toward virus-related inspections during the next several months.

OSHA likewise updated its Interim Enforcement Response Plan for COVID-19, detailing the specific steps agency personnel will take during inspections under the NEP. Given the increased resources OSHA will use to enforce existing safety standards and the law’s general requirement to maintain a workplace free from recognized hazards (also known as the general duty clause), employers should take five steps to prepare for a possible visit from OSHA.

Within 60 days of March 12, Oregon OSHA must notify federal OSHA of its intent to adopt the NEP, to rely upon existing standards or policies to regulate hazards concerning COVID-19, or not adopt the NEP. OSHA strongly encourages state agencies, like Oregon OSHA, to adopt the NEP, but does not require identical adoption.

Regardless of whether Oregon OSHA adopts the NEP, or something similar, now is the time to prepare. Most OSHA inspections generally include an opening conference, document review and witness interviews, a walk around the facility, and a closing conference. Here are five steps that employers can take to prepare for a potential COVID-19 inspection.

Adopt a written COVID-19 policy

When OSHA arrives for an inspection, it will likely ask for written COVID-19 protocols and a response plan. Ensure these are on hand to help set the tone for a positive inspection.

Train employees on existing COVID-19 policies

OSHA’s next area of inquiry will focus on how COVID-19 protocols have been communicated to employees. If training has been provided, then ensure proof of that is on hand. To the extent new employees have been brought on board since the previous training, provide updated training to these employees now on any COVID-19 policies in place, whether verbally or in writing. Communication to employees regarding the measures taken to keep them safe will not only help an OSHA inspection move smoothly, but also ease any concerns employees may have about potential exposure to COVID-19.

Consistently clean and disinfect the workplace

Optics are crucial during any OSHA inspection. If the OSHA inspector sees poor housekeeping upon arrival at the facility, it may be viewed in a negative light. Cleaning and disinfecting a workplace is never a bad thing, either during or after a pandemic. If cleanings have become more frequent during the pandemic, maintain that schedule. To protect employees, ensure commonly touched surfaces such as doorknobs, buttons, restrooms and break rooms are cleaned and sanitized frequently. If cleaners other than household cleaners are being used more frequently or with greater potency than an employee would use at home, ensure workers are trained on the hazards of the cleaning chemicals used in the workplace and maintain a written program in accordance with OSHA’s standard.

Remain vigilant enforcing social distancing

Any lack of proper spacing between employees will be easily discernible during any OSHA inspection. If the inspector sees employees working closely together, that will be viewed as a hazard, and in violation of Gov. Brown’s executive orders. Throughout the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged all people to practice social or physical distancing in order to prevent spread of COVID-19. To the extent possible, continue to have employees work from home, and stagger shift start times, lunch breaks and other times employees will be in the facility in order to reduce possible distancing issues. Continue to limit capacity in conference rooms, break rooms, offices and restrooms. Mark hallways and corridors as one way to limit “head-on” pedestrian traffic. Work with the landlord or HVAC contractor to increase the number of air exchanges at the facility and install air filters wherever possible. These actions will both decrease the amount of close contact between people at the facility and help filter the air in the work environment.

Ensure safety for the OSHA inspector

Throughout the inspection, ensure the OSHA official is provided the correct personal protective equipment, such as face coverings, goggles or other items. Provide the inspector a quick training session on the business’ COVID-19 safety protocols. This will likely impress the inspector and help build rapport. “We all share the mission of keeping everyone at the facility safe.”

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and OSHA is making a push to conduct additional inspections concerning the coronavirus in the next several months. Don’t delay improving employee safety, especially if more will return to the workplace in the coming months. This will not only create a safer workplace, but also prepare the business for a possible OSHA inspection.

Stephen Scott is an associate in the Portland, Oregon, office of Fisher Phillips, a national firm dedicated to representing employers’ interests in all aspects of workplace law. Contact him at 503-205-8094 or smscott@fisherphillips.com.