Assisted living facilities, continuing care retirement communities and skilled nursing facilities are among the targets of a new Occupational Safety and Health Administration program designed to focus inspections, outreach and compliance assistance efforts on “companies that put the largest number of workers at serious risk of contracting the coronavirus.”

The “national emphasis program,” or NEP, became effective Friday and will last up to 12 months. It also will focus on employers that retaliate against workers for making complaints about unsafe or unhealthy conditions, or for exercising other rights protected by federal law, the Department of Labor agency said.

“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,” said Jim Frederick, principal deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.

“Unprogrammed” inspections related to COVID-19 fatalities will continue to be prioritized under the program, OSHA said. “Particular attention for on-site inspections will be given to workplaces with a higher potential for COVID-19 exposures, such as hospitals, assisted living, nursing homes and other healthcare and emergency response providers treating patients with COVID-19, as well as workplaces with high numbers of COVID-19-related complaints or known COVID-19 cases,” according to the 35-page document detailing the program. 

In the healthcare realm, other entities targeted by the program include residential intellectual and developmental disability facilities, home healthcare services, temporary help services, physicians’ and dentists’ offices, ambulance services, general medical and surgical hospitals, psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, and specialty hospitals. Outside of healthcare, targeted through the program are supermarkets and convenience stores, discount department stores, warehouses and storage facilities, restaurants, correctional institutions, meat and poultry processors, and animal slaughterers.

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

OSHA said it will conduct new inspections as well as follow-up inspections to ones conducted in 2020. In addition to examining health and safety-related conditions, inspectors will distribute anti-retaliation information and refer allegations of retaliation to the Whistleblower Protection Program.

More than half of the states and territories already have similar enforcement programs, the federal agency said, adding that it “strongly encourages the rest to adopt this NEP.” States have 60 days to notify OSHA of their intentions.

The NEP was created in response to President Biden’s Jan. 21 executive order about protecting worker health and safety.

In a related action, OSHA announced that it now will prioritize the use of on-site workplace inspections where practical, or a combination of on-site and remote methods, rather than remote-only inspections.