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OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs is meant to be made up of worksites that are the best of the best in terms of workplace safety. But is it?
Over the past several years, less-than-flattering reports on VPP have been issued. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report suggested a lack of internal controls may allow unqualified worksites to participate, and a 2011 Center for Public Integrity investigation found deaths at VPP worksites were not recorded in a program-monitoring database.
Participants in VPP are recognized for voluntarily going above and beyond OSHA standards, and are exempt from OSHA programmed inspections.
However, a report issued Dec. 16 by the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General concluded that OSHA lacks controls to ensure VPP worksites are maintaining exemplary status. OIG found that 13 percent of VPP participants had an injury and illness rate greater than industry averages or had been cited by OSHA for violating safety and health standards. Most of these participants have not been removed from the program because of OSHA’s policy allowing worksites with higher-than-average rates to remain in VPP for up to six years.
“The fact companies were allowed up to 6 years to correct their higher-than-average injury and illness rates raises serious questions about whether or not these companies were fully protecting their workers,” OIG stated in the report.
In a formal written response to the report, OSHA administrator David Michaels objected to OIG’s conclusion. In OSHA’s evaluations, Michaels explained, rates are averaged over a certain time frame because injury and illness rates can vary, especially for small businesses.
Additionally, Michaels said injury and illness rates are only one factor OSHA uses to evaluate approval and pre-approval of VPP participants. The participants’ safety and health programs play an important role, he said. Although programs promoting employee involvement and ensuring notification of workplace hazards should result in lower injury and illness rates, that is not always the case, according to Michaels.
“OIG may disagree with OSHA’s policies, and we will review the policies, but OSHA does not believe that it is clear that the current policy necessarily results in the retention of VPP participants that do not provide a fully protective workplace,” he said.
But that’s not all OIG found. One of the most surprising findings from the report was OSHA’s inability, according to OIG, to even know how many participants were in VPP.
OSHA tracks VPP data in at least 11 different databases (one national and 10 regional), and the number of participants was somewhere between 1,746 and 1,851. The number of applications awaiting approval varied from 20 to 232.
VPP was supposed to receive a single database with a module through the agency’s recently rolled-out OSHA Information System. But ultimately the agency determined OIS would not be expanded for VPP users. Michaels told OIG that OSHA would instead pursue other steps to improve data reliability.
In the end, although Michaels defended the program by noting the improvements OSHA has made to address long-standing issues, he acknowledged deficiencies in VPP’s management. OSHA agreed with all of the report’s recommendations and would work toward them, he said.
Michaels maintains that the “vast majority” of VPP worksites have exemplary management systems.
But if more reports such as the one from OIG are released, his assertion may be questioned.
The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.