On May 1, 2023, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched a groundbreaking National Emphasis Program (NEP) that provides for a combination of enforcement measures to “significantly reduce or eliminate unprotected worker exposures to fall-related hazards…that can result in serious injuries and death.”
This comprehensive initiative aims to curtail the leading cause of fatal workplace injuries by targeting falls, which is the violation OSHA finds most frequently during construction industry inspections.
A Long-Awaited Initiative
Historical Bureau of Labor Statistics data and OSHA enforcement history illustrate how far-reaching the problem is: Workplace falls-related injuries accounted for a staggering 13% of the 5,190 workplace fatalities in 2021. Additional data from OSHA showed that falls were the focus of approximately 33% of the 24,333 inspections conducted in 2021.
In underlining the importance of the new Falls NEP, OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor Doug Parker said, “Considering that falls remain the leading cause of fatalities and serious injuries in all industries, the agency has determined that an increase in enforcement and outreach activities is warranted.”
Enforcement activities will encompass hazard-based inspection targeting, including optional locally generated programs targeting the construction field. Notably, Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHOs) are authorized to initiate inspections when observing workers at heights, both during routine workday travel and while en route to other inspections.
CSHOs also will observe surrounding areas for potential workplace falls hazards and, if they are present, conduct a Falls NEP inspection during programmed safety and health activities (including national, regional or local emphasis programs), and during unprogrammed inspections, such as incidents, complaints and referrals.
OSHA expects that most inspections will occur in construction due to the prevalence of fall-related incidents on construction sites. Nevertheless, the Falls NEP extends to all industries.
At the end of each NEP inspection, the CSHO will provide employers with information concerning OSHA fall protection requirements and protective measures they should implement. For example, a CSHO may share OSHA publications or the URL address for OSHA’s fall prevention standards and related outreach materials.
OSHA Workplace Falls Reduction Program Scope and Implementation
Outside of construction, the Falls NEP targets a range of general industry sectors, including:
Rooftop mechanical work/maintenance
Utility line work/maintenance (electrical, cable)
Holiday light installation
Road sign maintenance/billboards
Power washing buildings (not connected to painting)
Notably, OSHA describes this NEP as a “hazard-based inspection targeting” system and omits the usual appendix listing targeted industries by NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) code. The agency does, however, provide optional guidance for developing a system to inspect construction sites.
Experts believe OSHA made these moves in an effort to balance Fourth Amendment compliance, which becomes problematic the more discretion OSHA has in the decision to inspect a specific worksite, and its ability to ramp up enforcement.
The Workplace Falls NEP took effect on May 1, 2023, following a 90-day outreach period. The Falls NEP has no specified expiration date. However, OSHA plans to assess its effectiveness within six months and may continue, modify or replace the program based on the review’s outcomes.
Effect on State OSH Plans
State OSH Plans were required to adopt the Falls NEP or implement equally effective policies within 60 days of the program’s launch. The adoption process, whether identical or divergent, must be completed within six months. While the NEP may influence similar Regional Emphasis Programs (REPs) and Local Emphasis Programs (LEPs), those that closely align with the Falls NEP will likely be phased out.
OSHA’s workplace Falls NEP stands as a landmark initiative aimed at preventing fall hazards in workplaces across industries. By employing a combination of enforcement, outreach, and compliance assistance, the program is designed to minimize or eliminate fatal fall-related incidents.
Increased fall-related inspections are expected since OSHA compliance officers now can open inspections any time they observe someone working from a height. Employers should remain vigilant in eliminating fall hazards from the workplace.