OSHA Launches Nationwide Program Focusing on Workplace Falls

On May 1, 2023, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new National Emphasis Program (NEP) to prevent and reduce workplace falls.  For the last 12 years, 29 CFR 1926.501 (Duty to Have Fall Protection) has topped OSHA’s list of most frequently cited standards.  Despite the agency’s enforcement efforts, falls from heights remain the leading cause of fatalities and serious injuries across all industries.  According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the OSHA Information System (OIS), falls to a lower level accounted for 13% of all worker fatalities between 2014 and 2021.  In the construction industry, falls to lower levels caused 32% of all fatalities during this same period.  The NEP became effective immediately.

OSHA’s goal in releasing this NEP is to significantly reduce or eliminate unprotected worker exposures to fall-related hazards through a combination of increased enforcement, outreach efforts and compliance assistance.  This NEP applies to all industries, although OSHA acknowledges that most inspections conducted pursuant to the NEP will occur in the construction industry. In addition to construction, the NEP will target the following activities:

  1. Roof top mechanical work/maintenance
  2. Utility line work/maintenance (electrical, cable)
  3. Arborist/tree trimming
  4. Holiday light installation
  5. Road sign maintenance/billboards
  6. Power washing buildings (not connected to painting)
  7. Gutter cleaning
  8. Chimney cleaning
  9. Window cleaning
  10. Communication towers

The list is not intended to be exclusive, and inspections of other non-construction activities will fall under the NEP whenever an employee is observed working “at height,” upon approval by the area director.

Inspections within the scope of the NEP will include two categories: (1) programmed inspections; and (2) self-referrals. Programmed inspections will be scheduled based upon neutral selection criteria from both construction and targeted non-construction activities.  Additionally, Compliance Safety and Health Officers are authorized to initiate inspections whenever they observe activity within the scope of the NEP. This means that a CSHO may initiate an inspection when they observe someone working at height during the CSHO’s normal work-day travel, while en route to an inspection or during an unrelated inspection.  If a CSHO determines that an inspection is not warranted after entering a worksite and observing work activities, the CSHO will conduct outreach efforts before exiting the site.  Employers should keep in mind that while such inspections should initially be limited to evaluating worker exposure to hazards associated with falls, a CSHO may expand the scope of a fall-related inspection if injury and illness records, plain view hazards or employee interviews indicate other potential safety and health hazards or violations at the worksite.

State OSHA Plans have 60 days from the effective date of the NEP to notify OSHA whether they intend to adopt the NEP or already have in place policies and procedures that are identical to or at least as effective as the federal OSHA program, with final adoption to be accomplished within six months.

Employers, especially those in the construction industry and those performing the targeted activities listed above, should prepare for increased fall-related inspections and enforcement efforts in 2023 and beyond.  To that end, employers should make sure they have developed, implemented, and are maintaining a plan to reduce the risk of exposure to fall-related hazards in the workplace.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.