Study: OSHA Voluntary Workplace Safety Program Needs Oversight

June 18, 2009

A federal government workplace safety program that relies upon voluntary cooperation by employers needs stepped-up oversight to assure that only qualified companies participate and that safety problems found in workplaces are fixed.

That’s according to a Congressional review of the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) run by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The VPP, set up in 1982, takes a cooperative approach to obtaining compliance with safety and health regulations and OSHA’s workplace safety standards and highlights employers with exemplary safety records.

The VPP has grown steadily since its inception in 1982, with the number of employer worksites in the program more than doubling from 1,039 sites in 2003 to 2,174 sites in 2008, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a research arm of Congress.

But according to the GAO, there is some question whether all worksites participating in the voluntary program are in fact implementing corrections after safety issues arise.

One worksite that had three fatalties in five years was allowed to continue to participate while another workplace was cited for 10 violations.

OSHA’s goal is for VPP work sites to have an injury and illness rate of 50 percent less than their industry average but the GAO found that 12 percent of the worksites in the program had an injury or illness rate higher than rates for their industry.One had an injury and illness rate four times higher than their industry average.

“OSHA’s internal controls are not sufficient to ensure that only qualified worksites participate in the VPP. The lack of a policy requiring documentation in VPP files regarding follow-up actions taken in response to incidents, such as fatalities and serious injuries, at VPP sites limits the national office’s ability to ensure that its regions have taken the required actions,” the GAO report found.

Although industries represented have not changed significantly, with the chemical industry having the largest number of sites in the VPP, the number of sites in the motor freight transportation industry, which includes U.S. Postal Service sites, increased tenfold from 2003 to 2008.

The proportion of smaller VPP sites, those with fewer than 100 workers, increased from 28 percent in 2003 to 39 percent in 2008.

The GAO said OSHA does not review sites’ safety and health systems to determine if they should remain in the program.

GAO reviewed OSHA’s VPP files for the 30 sites that had fatalities from January 2003 to August 2008 and found that the files contained no documentation of actions taken by the regions’ VPP staff.

GAO interviewed regional officials and reviewed the inspection files for these sites and found that some sites had safety and health violations related to the fatalities, including one site with seven serious violations. As a result, some sites that no longer met the definition of an exemplary worksite remained in the VPP.

In addition, the report states that OSHA’s oversight is limited because it does not have internal controls, such as reviews by the national office, to ensure that regions consistently comply with VPP policies for monitoring sites’ injury and illness rates and conducting on-site reviews.

The report cites as an example that the national office has not
ensured that regions follow up as required when VPP sites’ injury and illness rates rise above the minimum requirements for the program, including having sites develop plans for reducing their rates.

Finally, OSHA has not developed goals or measures to assess the performance of the VPP, and the agency’s efforts to evaluate the program’s effectiveness have been inadequate, according to the report. OSHA officials said that low injury and illness rates are
effective measures of performance, however the GAO said that these rates may not be the best measures because its investigators found “discrepancies between the rates reported by worksites annually to OSHA and the rates OSHA noted during its on-site

The report also criticizes OSHA for not assessing the impact of the VPP on sites’ injury and illness rates. In response to a GAO recommendation in 2004, OSHA contracted with a consulting firm to conduct a study of the program’s effectiveness but that study turned out to be flawed and OSHA has not followed up with a reliable study, according to the GAO.

Democrats who think the previous Bush Administration went too far in expanding the voluntary program used the report to call for stricter enforcement of workplace safety standards.

“Taking a hands-off approach to a voluntary enforcement program is a recipe for disaster,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, chairman of the Senate HELP Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee.

“This report illustrates what many of us have been arguing all along – that when it comes to protecting America’s workers, voluntary safety programs by themselves don’t work,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey D-Calif., chair of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

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