COVID hampered OSHA inspections for about two years, but they rebounded in 2022, returning the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration closer to pre-pandemic enforcement levels, experts say.
“In 2022, as we moved into post-COVID life, OSHA was able to ramp up regularly scheduled inspections again,” says Holly Pups, an environmental health and safety editor at J.J. Keller & Associates, Inc., a Neenah, Wisconsin-based firm that provides safety and compliance solutions.
For fiscal year 2022, among frequently cited violations of workplace safety standards was for fall protection, communication to alert workers to chemical hazards and respiratory protection.
For 2023, scrutiny of those infractions will probably grow as OSHA looks to ramp up enforcement and get back to basics, experts say. Over the longer run, the agency will likely look deeper into workplace stress and its impact on the workplace, experts say.
Prior to this past year, OSHA was struggling to carry out its mission amid the pandemic.
Pups, a former OSHA compliance officer in North Carolina during the beginning of the COVID crisis, says a lot of on-site inspections got shut down in 2020 and 2021 because of risks to compliance officers.
Inspections declined from 33,393 in FY 2019 to 24,333 in FY 2021, according to OSHA data. FY 2022 data wasn’t posted by OSHA yet, but is expected to surpass FY 2021 levels, experts say.
OSHA didn’t respond to a Newsday request about what their enforcement focus may be for 2023.
But Pups says for FY 2022, the top infractions on OSHA’s list were little changed from FY 2021. Fall protection took the top spot, but hazard communication moved up to second place from fourth the year prior. Common infractions in that category include not having proper labeling on chemicals or current data sheets as well as inadequate training, Pups says.
Employers should be mindful to pay attention to infractions like these, she says, noting “OSHA is definitely increasing enforcement.”
Brent I. Clark, a Partner and Chair of the Workplace Safety and Environmental group in the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw, says he saw increased OSHA enforcement at job sites in 2022 across the U.S.
He started to see OSHA get “back on track” post-COVID with regular routine type inspections in March/April 2022 and it ramped up from there.
He thinks it will be a “back-to-basics year” with OSHA refocusing on all its core safety programs.
But OSHA is showing new concern about workplace stress. In 2022, for the first time, OSHA released a safety and health topics bulletin addressing workplace stress and mental health hazards, he says. See https://www.osha.gov/workplace-stress
There’s no formal standard addressing workplace stress, but releasing this informational bulletin recently means “OSHA is saying we’re looking at this and we want you to think about it,” Clark says.
Stefan Borovina, a partner at Goldberg Segalla in Garden City, whose practice focuses on OSHA and workplace safety, agrees, noting “I think workplace stress is definitely on OSHA’s radar.”
But addressing workplace stress through enforcement is difficult because an actual regulation does not exist, he says. Even under the general duty clause — a catch-all that covers general workplace hazards that may not have a formal standard — OSHA would have to show the workplace stress/mental health issue was work-related, which can be very difficult, Borovina says.
Still, “I think it’s something for employers to be mindful of,” he says, noting OSHA offers resources for employers to handle workplace stress.
He also recommends employers look at the top 10 hazards list for FY 2022 because that list doesn’t essentially change from year-to year.
"There should be no surprises,” Borovina says.
Other areas that may be getting a closer look include proper training for dirt moving and mobile elevated work platforms, says Lisa Aiken, president of Fast Line Safety Training in Melville.
She’s been getting more calls from employers for training in “dirt moving equipment, excavation and confined spaces,” particularly the last half of 2022. She said those calls usually are a result of OSHA coming to a site and asking questions or making a request or a supervisor seeing ramped up OSHA activity on another site.
The good news is she thinks more companies are investing in training, based on calls her firm has received and more large general contractors and developers coming to the island who already have strong safety cultures.
Still, even “more companies need to dive into creating more of a safety culture and budgeting more for training and educating employees on the hazards of work,” Aiken says.
Stefan Borovina's last name was incorrect in an earlier version of this column.
According to Mental Health America’s Mind the Workplace 2022 Report, four in five employees report that workplace stress affects their relationships with friends, families and coworkers.
Source: Mental Health America (https://www.mhanational.org/mind-workplace)