Washington Update: Balancing VPP

OSHA’s Voluntary Protection programs could be seen as a bit of a headache for the Obama administration.

In the fiscal year 2011 budget that President Barack Obama originally pitched to Congress, the Department of Labor proposed to “significantly reduce” federal funding for VPP, a program that awards employers who voluntarily go above and beyond OSHA standards. Supporters of the program railed against the decision and, ultimately, federal funding for VPP has remained to this day.

Although the program receives praise from high-ranking officials at DOL, including Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis and OSHA Administrator David Michaels, those same officials have stressed the need to better allocate resources.

Ideally, VPP employers are those who “get it” regarding worker safety. OSHA should focus resources on “bad actor” employers, some administration officials say. However, reports show VPP employers aren’t always doing a great job of protecting their workers.

A 2009 Government Accountability Office report found OSHA lacked internal controls for VPP, which could allow some unqualified employers to participate in the program – and be exempted from routine inspections.

The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative news organization based in Washington, has reported deaths occurring at VPP worksites, yet those deaths were not recorded in the database monitoring the program. Despite VPP sites being touted as models of a safe workplace, the opposite has sometimes been the case.

“OSHA inspected and found instances where employees were told to ‘throw safety out the window,’” Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) said during a June 28 hearing before the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee. “Yet the [employer] was allowed to stay in VPP.”

These employers could very likely be outliers. At the same hearing, VPP participants told committee members of improved employee safety and health at worksites since being admitted to the program.

“The cornerstone of Nucor’s continuous safety and health improvements is VPP,” said Mike Lee, general manager for Alabama-based Nucor Steel. “VPP works. VPP saves lives.”

Lee and others talked about how VPP helps them strive to improve. They noted that their injury and illness rates were lower than the national average for their industries – sometimes by as much as 75 percent. According to R. Davis Layne, executive director of the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association, VPP sites as a whole have rates 50 percent lower than industry averages.

These benefits of the program are hard to ignore. But how do you know the program truly is effective on a broad scale? According to David Levine, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, VPP lacks a rigorous evaluation to determine effectiveness.

“The really wonderful stories or the really terrible stories are not going to tell us what’s happening overall,” Levine said at the hearing. “We surely know that when it’s done right, the results are fantastic. What we don’t yet know is how representative those results are.”

A valid, scientific evaluation of the program – which has never occurred – could help determine the program’s effectiveness and perhaps demonstrate the cost savings to employers pondering VPP participation, Levine said.

But another problem exists. OSHA has had trouble ensuring VPP participants actually meet VPP standards, and adding more employers into the program will only make the situation worse.

“The real value of VPP is not in the numbers, but really in the quality of the program, the integrity of the program,” assistant OSHA administrator Jordan Barab said at the hearing. “We do not want a few bad apples to spoil the bunch.”

OSHA has worked to expel such bad apples from VPP, he said, but the issue is one of resources. More participants flooding into VPP won’t help if OSHA can’t keep up.

So where does the agency focus? On the employers who want to improve and be safer than everyone else? On employers who aren’t even sure what it means to be safe? Or does OSHA try to stretch resources and attempt to do both?

It seems no matter the choice, it will be a headache.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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