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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration plans to increase its inspections of assisted living communities and some other types of long-term care and healthcare-related employers as it extends its revised National Emphasis Program for COVID-19 “until further notice.” The program originally was set to expire today.

The Department of Labor agency also said that it temporarily is doubling its coronavirus-related inspection goal from 5% of inspections to 10% while it works “expeditiously” to finalize a permanent coronavirus healthcare standard.

The National Emphasis Program focuses on companies “that put the largest number of workers at serious risk of contracting the coronavirus” as well as on companies that retaliate against employees who “complain about unsafe or unhealthful conditions or exercise other rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.” In addition to assisted living operators, some other long-term care employers affected include continuing care retirement communities, nursing homes and home health providers.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported increasing coronavirus hospitalization rates nationwide since mid-April, and data forecasts that hospitalizations may increase significantly in the coming weeks,” OSHA said in an announcement posted Thursday on its website. “This increase in hospitalizations reinforces the need for OSHA to continue prioritizing inspections at workplaces with a higher potential for coronavirus exposures, such as hospitals, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and other healthcare and emergency response providers treating patients with coronavirus.”

Launched in March 2021 and revised in July 2021, the National Emphasis Program also will continue to cover industries outside of healthcare, such as meat and poultry processing, OSHA said.

The agency said that from March 2021 to March 2022, inspections under the program accounted for 7% of all federal OSHA inspections, exceeding the program’s goal of 5%, according to the agency.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in February 2020, OSHA said, 1,200 coronavirus-related citations have been issued to employers, and the agency to date has assessed penalties totaling $7.2 million. Additionally, OSHA said has obtained a total of more than $5 million in monetary awards for more than 400 employees who filed coronavirus retaliation claims against their employers.

Healthcare standard on the way

The announcement about the extension of the revised National Emphasis Program comes as the agency works on a final COVID-19 healthcare standard meant to protect assisted living and other healthcare workers from exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.

The COVID-19 healthcare emergency temporary standard initially announced in June 2021 required assisted living communities and other healthcare settings to conduct hazard assessments and have written plans to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus; called on healthcare employers to provide some employees with N95 respirators and other personal protective equipment; and included social distancing, employee screening, and cleaning and disinfecting protocols.

The agency withdrew the non-recordkeeping parts of the standard in December after failing to complete work on a final rule within the timeframe established by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, then proposed a final rule in March. Senior living industry advocates sent comments and provided testimony on the final rule in April, reiterating their opposition to broad requirements that they called “overly prescriptive” and confusing.