Is OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) broken?

July 11th, 2011 by Julie Ferguson

OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program was implemented some 30 years ago and includes about 2,500 workplaces. Employers must qualify for participation by meeting certain criteria, including a demonstrated safety record that is better the than industry average and practices such as training and employee involvement that would indicate a serious safety culture. Companies that are accepted into the program become exempt from programmed OSHA inspections while they retain their VPP status — a not insubstantial benefit that makes the program popular with employers and small government advocates alike. So popular that some legislators are trying to make the VPP permanent.
But many question the effectiveness of the program beyond its popularity. And now, some investigators are asking what a company would have to do to lose the VPP status. If a company experienced a preventable workplace fatality, would they be ejected from the program? Would they be subject to a higher level of scrutiny?
Apparently not. A recent investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) revealed that at least 80 workers have died at VPP employers since 2001 yet have retained their “model workplace” status in VPP. Yet in 47 of these cases, inspectors found serious safety violations and, sometimes, tragedies that could have been averted.
Last week CPI and PBS’s Need to Know ran the first report of their investigative series on OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), Model Workplaces, Imperiled Lives. In addition to the number of deaths at VPP participants, the investigation found that:

  • Even when workers die and inspectors find safety violations, “model workplaces” often face minimal consequences and retain the special designation. At least 65 percent of workplaces where a fatal accident occurred remain in the special “Voluntary Protection Program” today.
  • As the program tripled in size over the last decade, OSHA cut the number of staffers overseeing it and weakened requirements for membership, raising questions about how well the program supplements the efforts of inspectors in safeguarding American workers.
  • Little widespread evidence exists that the 29-year-old program works. Despite calls by the Government Accountability Office and others for OSHA to complete a comprehensive evaluation of the program’s effectiveness, none has occurred.

PBS featured this report on The Watch list: Safety matters: Injuries and fatalities at ‘model’ workplaces, which included this video.

This is not the first we’ve heard of the flaws in the VPP. In The Pump Handle’s post entitled Investigators probe integrity of OSHA’s safety recognition program, they link to a May 2009 GAO Report on OSHA’s VPPs, which was extremely critical of OSHA’s VPP program, noting that:

  • OSHA’s internal controls are not sufficient to ensure that only qualified worksites participate in the VPP. First, OSHA’s oversight is limited by the minimal documentation requirements of the program. Second, OSHA does not ensure that its regional offices consistently comply with its policies for the VPP.
  • OSHA’s lack of a policy requiring documentation in the VPP files of actions taken by the regions in response to incidents, such as fatalities and serious injuries, at VPP sites limits the national office’s ability to ensure that regions have taken the required actions. OSHA’s VPP Manual requires regions to review sites’ safety and health systems after such incidents to determine whether systemic changes are needed to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future and whether the site should remain in the program.
  • OSHA’s oversight of the VPP is limited because it does not have internal controls, such as management reviews by the national office, to ensure
    that its regions consistently comply with VPP policies for verifying sites’ injury and illness rates and conducting on-site reviews.
  • OSHA’s efforts to assess the performance of the VPP and evaluate its effectiveness are not adequate. First, OSHA has not developed performance goals or measures to assess the performance of the program. Second, OSHA contracted for a study of the VPP to evaluate its effectiveness, but the study was flawed.

Shortly after this GAO report, OSHA pledged to reform the VPP.
There’s certainly a place for a “Centers of Excellence” program for workplace safety. Companies that have made extraordinary efforts to ensure safety should be recognized. But it looks like a program that began with good intent has morphed into something that is poorly managed at best and a mockery of the original intent at worst. How much of a distinction is it for the truly high performing organizations if weak or inappropriate entities are kept in the program? Before any expansion of this program occurs, Congress would do well to ensure that the program that exists gets fixed.

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