Back to Basics

Back to Basics: Understanding OSHA’s Emphasis Programs

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine OSHA’s emphasis programs.

OSHA emphasis programs

How likely are you to see a compliance safety and health officer (CSHO) show up at your workplace for an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection?

The agency has a few methods for allocating its enforcement resources. For example, the agency’s initial response to an employee complaint may be a letter or telephone call rather than an on-site inspection. The agency also evaluates the performance of its area offices using the OSHA Weighting System (OWS).

The OWS assigns a number of enforcement units (EU) for different types of inspections. The agency assigns the highest number of EUs for inspections involving criminal or significant cases: seven EUs. It awards five EUs for inspections for process safety management (PSM) of highly hazardous chemicals and for inspections following a fatality or catastrophe.

The weighting system awards three EUs for inspections for the agency’s “focus four” hazards: caught-in or between, electrical, fall, and struck-by hazards. OSHA assigns two EUs for inspections for certain hazards, including ergonomics (musculoskeletal disorders), permit-required confined spaces hazards, occupational noise, site-specific targeting (based on employer-submitted injury and illness data), and workplace violence. All other inspections receive one EU.

OSHA also uses national, regional, and local emphasis programs (NEPs, REPs, and LEPs) to focus its enforcement resources on particular hazards or high-hazard industries. The agency’s newest NEP is an emphasis program for COVID-19 launched March 12 and revised July 7, with minor changes made August 30.

Area offices begin their NEP enforcement efforts with site selection, generating a master list of establishments for possible inspection. Agency directives for hazard-specific NEPs typically include a list of targeted industries.

Primary targets of the COVID-19 NEP include ambulance and home healthcare services; correctional facilities; healthcare and long-term care facilities; hospitals and physicians’ offices; and department stores, groceries, supermarkets, restaurants, meatpacking and poultry processing facilities, and warehouses and storage facilities.

Because healthcare and healthcare support services are subject to the OSHA emergency temporary standard (ETS) for COVID-19, inspections at those workplaces include a review of the employer’s written COVID-19 program.

At nonhealthcare workplaces, if the employer has not implemented hazard controls because all employees are vaccinated, the CSHO must verify the employer’s claim. The CSHO then will review the injury and illness log for active COVID-19 infections or infections that have resulted in lost work time.

On September 20, OSHA announced plans to develop an NEP for heat stress, as well as a heat stress rulemaking, as part of a multiagency effort to address climate hazards, including excessive heat.

The agency said the NEP likely would be modeled on the agency’s REP already in place in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas (Region 6) focusing on heat illnesses—heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke—among outdoor workers.

The heat illness inspections are triggered on days when the weather service’s heat index is forecast to exceed 80 degrees and focus on precautions in place to prevent and handle heat-related illnesses.

Current NEPs

NEPs are temporary programs, but OSHA’s oldest—for crystalline silica and lead—were issued in 2008. The agency’s current NEPs include:

  • Amputations in manufacturing industries,
  • Combustible dust,
  • COVID-19,
  • Hexavalent chromium,
  • Lead,
  • Primary metals industries,
  • PSM,
  • Respirable crystalline silica,
  • Shipbreaking, and
  • Trenching and excavation.

Amputations in manufacturing industries

The amputations in manufacturing NEP is focused on preventing amputations through inspection for violations of OSHA’s hand and portable power tools, lockout/tagout (control of hazardous energy), and machine guarding standards.

Covered industries include concrete manufacturing; food manufacturing; machinery manufacturing; nonmetallic mineral product manufacturing; paper, pulp, and lumber manufacturing; primary metal and fabricated metal products manufacturing; and plastics manufacturing, as well as furniture and vehicle manufacturing.

Inspection procedures include an opening conference, a review of incident reports and injury and illness logs, and a workplace walkaround for worker exposures to amputation hazards posed by machinery and tools.

Combustible dust

The combustible dust NEP was reissued in 2008, canceling an NEP issued in 2007, and covers inspections for dusts that may cause a deflagration, other fires, or an explosion, including:

  • Biosolids;
  • Certain textile materials;
  • Coal and other carbon dusts;
  • Metal dust, such as aluminum and magnesium;
  • Plastic dust and additives;
  • Wood dust, and
  • Other organic dust such as dried blood, flour, paper, soap, and sugar.

Given the variety of combustible dusts, the NEP covers a wide range of industries, including those in the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity; food and agricultural product processing; and pharmaceutical preparation. It also covers a variety of metals and wood manufacturing, as well as the production of guided missiles and space vehicles.

The NEP’s inspection procedures include criteria for CSHOs to use in identifying and characterizing combustible dust hazards. CSHOs then must pay attention to dust collectors, duct work, and dust containers.

Hexavalent chromium

The hexavalent chromium NEP is a hazard-specific program focused on inspections for violations of OSHA’s general industry, construction, and maritime hexavalent chromium standards. Industries targeted under the NEP include aircraft manufacturing; boat-building and repair and shipbuilding and repair; ferrous metal foundries and iron and steel mills, as well as secondary smelting, refining, and alloying of nonferrous metal; chrome colors and other inorganic pigment, inorganic dye and pigment, and industrial inorganic chemical manufacturing; metal plating and finishing (electroplating, plating, polishing, anodizing, and coloring); and plastics materials and resin manufacturing.

Inspection procedures include an opening conference, an evaluation of the employer’s industrial hygiene program, and sampling procedures during a walkaround to measure workers’ exposures to toxic substances.


The lead NEP, issued in 2008, is focused on inspection for violations of OSHA’s general industry, construction, and shipyard lead standards. Facilities targeted under the NEP include shooting ranges, along with heavy and residential construction, painting and paper hanging, and automotive repair; battery, bus, and truck manufacturing; and copper, glass, and paint manufacturing.

Inspection procedures include a review of an employer’s hazard communication program and medical surveillance program for lead and evaluation of engineering controls and personal protective equipment (PPE) during a walkaround at the facility or site, as well as evaluations of the employer’s housekeeping and respiratory protection programs.

CSHOs also will conduct personal air monitoring and collect wipe samples. The CSHOs must decide whether to utilize the employer’s monitoring data to assess employee exposures. The CSHOs also may expand the scope of the inspection if informed of other workplace hazards or violations.

Primary metal industries

The industry-specific NEP for primary metals manufacturing is focused on chemical and physical hazards in aluminum, copper, and steel manufacturing. Inspections are focused on compliance with the hazard communication and respiratory protection standards and may include inspection procedures under the lead and respirable crystalline silica NEPs.

Inspection procedures include evaluation of the hazard communication program, the availability and quality of safety data sheets (SDSs), and how the employer’s hazard evaluation guides the selection and use of PPE and respiratory protection.

Along with a review of SDSs, walkarounds can include full-shift personal air monitoring and/or short-term personal air monitoring to determine exposure levels to hazardous substances.

Inspections under the NEP are not always programmed. During a recent inspection of a northern Wisconsin foundry following an amputation, agency inspectors opened a second inspection under the agency’s primary metal industry NEP, finding violations related to exposures to respirable crystalline silica and excessive occupational noise. During the NEP inspection, the employer reported another injury to inspectors, leading to a third inspection.


The chemical facilities NEP ensures compliance with the agency’s PSM of highly hazardous chemicals standard. Covered facilities include petroleum refineries, as well as chemical manufacturing and facilities producing explosives and pyrotechnics.

Inspection procedures emphasize a check for PSM implementation over documentation; the agency has a list of “dynamic questions” that CSHOs use that is not publicly available. The agency contends that facilities may have an extensive written PSM program but lack adequate program implementation. CSHOs will conduct inspections of both host and contract employers at a facility.

Respirable crystalline silica

The silica NEP, revised in 2020, covers enforcement of the construction, general, and maritime industry standards for respirable crystalline silica. The revised NEP addresses enforcement of standards revised in 2016.

Elements of the revised NEP include:

  • Application of a lower permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica of 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) as an eight-hour, time-weighted average (TWA);
  • Instructions for area offices to develop randomized establishment lists of employers in their jurisdictions for targeted inspections from the updated list of targeted industries; and
  • New respirable crystalline silica inspection procedures for CSHOs.

Targeted industries include support activities for oil and gas operations; electric power generation, transmission, and distribution; and dozens of manufacturing industries. Inspection procedures include air sampling for exposure monitoring, observation of other hazards, and informing workers of their whistleblower protection rights.


The industry-specific NEP for shipbreaking, or the dismantling of ships; recycling of their raw materials; and demolition was issued in 2016 to address the high incidence of injuries and illnesses in shipbreaking operations. The NEP conforms to the Labor Department’s obligations under a memorandum of understanding (MOA) on coordination and information sharing of domestic ship recycling operations with the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, and the EPA.
Inspections are focused on hazards that include exposure to asbestos, lead, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as bilge and ballast water removal, confined spaces, ladders and scaffolding, metal cutting, occupational noise, oil or fuel removal and tank cleaning, paint removal, powered industrial trucks, and walking surfaces.

EPA, OSHA, and U.S. Navy inspection procedures are spelled out in the MOA.

Trenching and excavation

The trenching and excavation NEP is focused on enforcement of the agency’s construction industry excavations standards. CSHOs may open an NEP inspection any time they observe an open trench or excavation during other inspections or their normal workday travel. They may conduct an inspection even if they are unable to contact the agency area office due to no mobile phone or landline service.

Inspections are normally limited to evaluating worker exposure to safety and health hazards associated with the excavation but may be expanded if other hazards are “in plain view.”

Factors that play into whether you’ll undergo an OSHA inspection include complaints; site-specific targeting due to a high injury and illness rate in your annual summary (Form 300A); hazards emphasized in the agency’s OWS; and a national, regional, or local emphasis program.

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