Voluntary Protection Programs

VPP: Here to stay?

New legislation would make OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs a permanent part of the agency

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Key points

  • Stakeholders disagree about whether VPP helps OSHA better focus its resources.
  • OSHA has said it intends to expand the program, and one VPP supporter says worksites that attain VPP status promote worker health and safety among other employers.
  • The National Safety Council says the program offers an opportunity for OSHA to show it does more than simply enforce rules.

Additional resource

OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs recognizes worksites that exhibit “outstanding” efforts by employers and employees to achieve “exemplary” occupational safety and health. These worksites are expected to have effective safety and health programs, and maintain injury rates below national averages for their respective industries. As a reward for taking steps above and beyond basic OSHA requirements, VPP worksites are exempt from routine OSHA inspections.

“It is one federal program that works well, fostering cooperation between private businesses and a government regulator,” Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) said in a press release. “This collaboration is good for employees, employers and the American economy.”

Rokita was one of three congressmen who introduced legislation May 21 to codify VPP, which would make the program a permanent fixture at OSHA. Currently, the agency can get rid of it or change it at will.

VPP proponents believe codifying the program is a good idea, and that it would help the program maintain its standing as one of the best examples of OSHA working with employers. However, VPP is not without its critics.

Opposing views

Because worksites in VPP are exempt from some inspections, Eric Frumin, director of health and safety with Washington-based labor union coalition Change to Win, views the program as a pretext for avoiding OSHA enforcement.

“Companies with good safety and health programs have plenty of good reasons for adopting and maintaining them,” he said in an email to Safety+Health. “They above all should not need any enforcement exemption in order to have a good program.”

Currently, VPP participants include more than 2,200 worksites covering nearly 1 million workers. But at the same time, OSHA itself is tasked with covering approximately 8 million worksites with more than 130 million workers. One of the criticisms of VPP is that it draws attention from employers struggling with occupational safety and health and instead uses resources to recognize employers already doing a good job.

The concern is valid, said R. Davis Layne, who stressed that strengthening VPP should not be done at the expense of enforcement. Layne is the former executive director and current senior advisor to the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association, a Falls Church, VA-based nonprofit member organization composed of employers currently in and aspiring to be in VPP.

But while Frumin considers the program a way for worksites to avoid inspections, Layne views VPP as an opportunity for OSHA to better focus its enforcement efforts on employers that are failing to protect workers. VPP sites are vetted and supposed to be the cream of the crop, so isn’t it better that OSHA enforcement resources are focused elsewhere?

However, one former OSHA region administrator claims removing a few hundred worksites from the tens of thousands the agency investigates every year may not help much in the big picture. Adam Finkel, now senior fellow and executive director of the University of Pennsylvania Law School program on regulation, said OSHA is overwhelmed when it comes to inspecting worksites.

Concerns

Additionally, not every worksite in VPP is at the top of its game. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report concluded that OSHA’s internal controls were insufficient to ensure only qualified worksites were participating in VPP. GAO recommended that OSHA develop policies, controls, and goals and measurements to fix the problem. All of the recommendations were later implemented, according to GAO records.

Four years later, a report from the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General concluded that OSHA still lacked sufficient controls to ensure VPP worksites were maintaining high-level occupational safety and health programs. Further, OIG found that one-eighth of all VPP participants remained in the program despite having injury and illness rates greater than industry averages, or having been cited with safety and health violations.

Worksites with serious flaws in their safety and health program should not be in VPP, Layne said. However, he stressed that workers are much safer at sites approved under VPP, as VPP sites work to continually improve safety and health.

“It’s important to understand it’s called the Voluntary Protection Programs. It’s not called the Voluntary Perfection Programs,” Layne said.

In its fiscal year 2016 budget justification, OSHA said it was completing revisions to its VPP policy directive, which will integrate and establish policy changes to address OIG recommendations. Another OIG audit of OSHA’s program was underway, the office said in May. Results of that investigation were not available at press time, nor were details on when the report may be finalized or released.

OSHA lists in its budget several other efforts to bolster VPP, including moves expected to increase VPP evaluations and applications processed. “Our aim for 2016 is to expand VPP because we think it’s a great program,” Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said during a March 19 House subcommittee hearing.

Growing the program comes with its own challenges. Finkel said that when he was at OSHA in the early 2000s, the administration placed pressure on regions to increase the number of worksites participating in VPP. “That seemed to be way out of proportion of what VPP should be, which is an excellence program for the very best,” he said. “It should not occupy more than a few percent of the agency’s budget.”

The future of VPP

Despite these concerns, Finkel agrees with many other stakeholders that codifying VPP is a good idea. For one, it could ease the issue of resources by being separately funded. Finkel said funding for VPP would need to be in addition to what OSHA currently receives, stressing that Congress should not reduce the agency’s budget in certain areas to provide VPP with more money.

In addition, for many stakeholders, achieving VPP status is a source of pride. Layne said employees at worksites that fly a VPP flag are “ambassadors” who help promote safety and health at other facilities, and Finkel noted that OSHA can leverage the program to encourage safety and health among other employers.

Amy Harper, senior director for workplace safety initiatives at the National Safety Council, said OSHA must seek a balance among rulemaking, enforcement and compliance assistance activities. The council supports the legislation introduced in May, and Harper said the program offers an opportunity for OSHA to show it does more than simply enforce rules.

“We should have OSHA tell us what we should be working for, not just telling us what to do,” she said. “It’s important to have a vision for what we want to achieve.”

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