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5 Steps Restaurants Can Take to Navigate Greater Attention from OSHA

Posted by Cindy Smail June 07, 2021

One day after taking office, President Biden issued an executive order directing the Department of Labor (DOL) to create a national program focused on hazardous conditions related to COVID-19. The administration has since made clear that workplace safety is a priority, both in the context of the ongoing pandemic and more broadly. And restaurants are clearly in regulators’ sights — meaning risk professionals must be prepared.

Restaurants in Focus

The April 9 nomination of Doug Parker, former head of CAL/OSHA, to lead the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fills a post that had been vacant since 2017, signaling how important the new administration considers health and safety enforcement.

Even before Parker’s appointment, however, OSHA launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP) that includes COVID-19-related workplace safety standards for employers based on CDC guidance. The NEP concentrates on industries with workers at greater risk potential for COVID-19, including restaurants.

This new regulatory attention comes at a time when many restaurants are just beginning their recovery from a painful year. And already, a number of restaurants have shared with Marsh that they have been subject to greater OSHA scrutiny, including more telephonic investigations of employee complaints and in-restaurant inspections.

Greater Enforcement of Existing Rules

Restaurants must also be mindful of OSHA initiatives affecting employers across all industries.

In April, OSHA submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget draft text for a new COVID-19 emergency temporary standard that would also create new workplace safety rules and regulations for employers across a number of industries. The standard, will likely mirror emergency standards developed by various states, and is expected to be approved by early to mid-June.

Employers will also likely need to comply with other rules that may not have been enforced under the Trump administration. For example, protections against retaliation are specifically highlighted in the NEP and expected to pick up.

OSHA is similarly expected to resume enforcement of the requirement that serious injuries and illnesses be reported to the agency within 24 hours, and has begun flagging restaurants for repeat violations for failing to comply with this regulation. Historically, repeat violation citations have been reserved for what were considered more grave situations — for example, the same serious violation occurring at the same location.

The administration is also seeking additional funding to potentially double the number of inspectors employed by OSHA, with an eye on in-person checkups. These inspectors are expected to be hired and trained over the next 18 months — and some of them will likely focus on restaurants.

Five Actions to Take Now

As OSHA makes restaurant workplace safety a priority — and the maximum penalties OSHA is permitted to impose continue to increase annually — risk professionals must be ready for potential inspections and regulatory citations.

Among other steps, restaurant risk professionals should:

  • Ensure company leaders and management understand OSHA’s new focus on the industry. Everyone with a role to play in restaurant workplace safety must understand the potential impacts, including the cost of potential citations and fines and the prospect of reputational damage if cited.
  • Train restaurant managers on OSHA basics. Aside from injury and illness reporting requirements, managers should be aware of common safety violations, how to address team members’ safety concerns, and what to do in the event of an OSHA inspection.
  • Focus on plans and procedures that OSHA is likely to scrutinize. COVID-19 protocols and hazard assessments should be regularly updated, properly communicated to employees, and diligently enforced. Safety data sheets on chemicals used in workplaces should be readily available if requested by inspectors. CDC-compliant sanitation programs should be in place. And personal protective equipment should be available to all employees and used properly.
  • Maintain inspection-ready environments. Injuries are less likely to occur in restaurants staffed by employees who recognize that an inspection can occur anywhere and at any time. Employee complaints are also less likely to occur in such workplaces.
  • Facilitate safe and responsive environments. Employees are less likely to file OSHA complaints if they believe their feedback and safety is taken seriously. Risk professionals should work with managers and others to promote workplaces in which team members can voice concerns openly and where such concerns are acted upon in a timely fashion.

Restaurants may not be able to avoid all of the scrutiny that’s expected under the new administration. But taking these steps can help them prevent employee injuries, limit costly fines and penalties, and avoid reputational damage as they continue to recover from COVID-19.

Cindy Smail