New OSHA Safety Program Takes Hard Look at Warehousing & Distribution

By Sam Hihn on Sep 08, 2023
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In a bid to bolster workplace safety in the booming warehousing and distribution industry, a groundbreaking National Emphasis Program (NEP) from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) became effective July 13, 2023. 

This new initiative, which also affects high-risk retailers, addresses the significant surge in injuries and illnesses in this sector by focusing on specific hazards and high-risk areas.  

Here's what warehouse operators and retailers should know: 

Rationale for Warehouses NEP 

The number of warehousing and distribution-sector employees nearly tripled from 2011 to 2021. That growth unfortunately correlated with an alarming jump in injury and illness rates, especially in the establishments covered by OSHA’s new Warehouses NEP.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that workplace injury rates in these organizations exceed the overall industry average, which is why the Warehouses NEP targets them. OSHA tailored the NEP to improve conditions at workplace categories known to pose the greatest safety and health hazards. 

“Our enforcement efforts are designed to do one thing – lead to permanent change in workplace safety.  This emphasis program allows OSHA to direct resources to establishments where evidence shows employers must be more intentional in addressing the root causes of worker injuries and align their business practices with the goal to ensure worker health and safety,” said OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor Doug Parker. 

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Covered Employers   

The Warehouses NEP encompasses various warehouse-related industries and a set of “high-injury-rate retail establishments.” Seven North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes represent warehouse industry segments, while five NAICS codes denote the “high-injury-rate retail establishments.” OSHA determined that these retail establishments present hazards comparable to warehousing facilities, particularly in loading and storage areas.   

The warehouse-related industries are: 

    • Postal Service (Processing and Distribution Centers only) 
    • Couriers and Express Delivery Services 
    • Local Messengers and Local Delivery 
    • General Warehousing and Storage 
    • Refrigerated Warehousing and Storage 
    • Farm Product Warehousing and Storage 
    • Other Warehousing and Storage 

Covered retail establishments include: 

    • Home Centers 
    • Hardware Stores 
    • Other Building Material Dealers 
    • Supermarkets and Other Grocery Stores 
    • Warehouse Clubs and Supercenters 
    • Inspection Scope  

Under the Warehouses NEP, OSHA will conduct comprehensive, wall-to-wall safety inspections at covered warehouse industry workplaces. In contrast, inspections at high-injury-rate retail establishments will begin as partial-scope inspections. Compliance officers will initially focus on storage and loading areas but may expand their scope if they find evidence of violations in other areas of a grocery or big-box store.  

Inspection methods include a review of 300 Logs, employee interviews and visual observations, especially as they relate to the following hazards that OSHA has identified as common across these workplaces: 

OSHA-identified common hazards:

    • Powered industrial truck and material handling/storage operations (e.g., struck-by or caught-in-between hazards); 
    • Walking-working surfaces (e.g., slips, trips and falls); 
    • Blocked aisles and means of egress (e.g., fire protection); and 
    • Heat illness and ergonomic hazards. 
    • Inspection Selection Criteria 

Two randomized lists guide the selection of establishments for inspection under the Warehouses NEP. The first list comprises warehouses and distribution centers within the covered NAICS codes. The second list identifies retail establishments with the highest injury rates, as determined by data submitted under OSHA’s E-Recordkeeping Rule. 

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Excluded Employers 

Establishments where OSHA has conducted inspections within the past three years that focused on hazards addressed by the Warehouses NEP are exempt from further inspection under this program. 

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State Plan States  

State OSH Plans must participate in the Warehouses NEP by either adopting an identical emphasis program or implementing a program that is “at least as effective” as the federal OSHA NEP. State Plans must submit a notice of intent before September 14, 2023, or within 60 days of the NEP’s effective date. 

Program Duration and Review 

The Warehouses NEP will terminate on July 13, 2026. OSHA has the option to renew the program based on its analysis of number of violations, hazard abatement as a result of NEP inspections, number of employers covered and other factors. An internal review will take place during the first 12 months to determine the program’s future. 

RELATED: Working in Extreme Heat: OSHA Enforces Heat Illness Prevention >>

Key Takeaways 

The Warehouses NEP is OSHA’s proactive response to the rising safety concerns in the growing warehousing and distribution industry. By targeting specific hazards and risk-prone areas, OSHA aims to bring about lasting change in workplace safety practices.  

Warehouse operators, retailers and other employers in the covered industries are more likely to experience inspections under the new NEP and could face corresponding OSHA penalties for any violations. To limit their exposure and protect workers’ safety, smaller businesses may want to consider partnering with an experienced professional employer organization that specializes in risk management, like Axcet HR Solutions, that can effectively manage internal safety programs and educate managers on how to comply with OSHA requirements. 

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Written by Sam Hihn

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