An OSHA of Contradictions: ‘Model Workplaces’ Not Always So Safe

Davis Layne, a former top OSHA official who now is chief of an advocacy group for companies in VPP, said sites that have experienced problems are the exception, not the rule.

“Is it a perfect program? Certainly not,” Layne said. “But neither is [OSHA’s standard] enforcement.” He said the group, the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Association, doesn’t track fatalities at VPP sites; asked if 80 deaths over a decade was an acceptable number, he said he didn’t know.

VPP exemplified the philosophy of the Ronald Reagan administration, which started the program in 1982, and the George W. Bush administration, which dramatically expanded it. The idea was that cooperation between regulators and industry could achieve better results at less cost than enforcement alone.

“OSHA’s primary role is not to police, to punish, or to penalize,” asserted Thorne Auchter, the agency’s chief, in 1982. “We can better assist employers by adopting a more helpful, supportive posture aimed at addressing safety and health needs.”

Other agencies also have adopted voluntary alternatives to enforcement. The Energy Department has a VPP, and the mining industry wants one. Barely a year after the deadly accident at Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal mine, a coal executive asserted that “to improve safety performance, we need to move beyond a model based strictly on enforcement.”

His suggestion: a program patterned after OSHA’s VPP. The Environmental Protection Agency rewarded companies taking steps benefiting the environment by lessening the chances of an inspection — until the EPA’s inspector general criticized the program and a newspaper series investigation called it a “charade.”

The EPA canceled the program in 2009.

But OSHA’s program has spanned administrations and enjoys continued support today. Despite warnings from government auditors about the risks of expanding too quickly, its growth has been exponential, adding to concerns that employers are only going through the motions, not genuinely protecting workers. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of sites tripled.

“When it started, we thought it was a good idea,” said Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers union. But “the program got out of control. They started measuring the program by the number of sites rather than the quality. A lot of companies that got in didn’t deserve it.” (Nor is there much in the way of evidence that the program has made workplaces safer: See Does it Work?)

When the Obama administration sought to curb spending on the program last year, the participants’ association and supporters in Congress resisted; the administration gave in. Members of both parties in Congress are pressing to make VPP permanent and to ensure its government funding. No law now requires OSHA to keep the program.

Supporters argue that the program extends the reach of workplace safety regulation at a time when inspectors hardly can be expected to keep tabs on conditions facing every American worker. OSHA has only so many inspectors. By one AFL-CIO estimate, it would take 129 years for inspectors to visit each U.S. workplace.

To be sure, there are success stories — injury rates lowered, workers’ compensation costs reduced, safety lessons learned and disseminated. Some participants in the program mentor their peers and help OSHA by sharing information and providing experts to help evaluate other sites.

Five of Butterball’s six poultry processing facilities in three states, for example, are in VPP. Since joining the program, the plants have seen significant reductions in injury and illness rates and workers’ compensation costs, said Brian Rodgers, the company’s corporate director of safety and risk management. “By committing to it,” he said, “we believe that it elevates us to be the best of the best.”

Another key benefit of participation is that employees become more involved and aware of safety issues, whether it’s holding safety meetings or identifying potential hazards, Layne said. In many workplaces, he said, “it changes the culture.”

But, for some sites, a different picture emerged [3] during an eight-month iWatch News investigation that included visits to VPP workplaces, interviews with company officials, union representatives, safety experts, accident victims’ families and former OSHA officials, and a review of thousands of pages of OSHA records and agency databases obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

This picture is of a program that has grown faster than OSHA’s ability to monitor it. It is a picture of a program that continues to reward some companies, even after they have failed to protect workers and violated safety standards. It is a picture of overstretched regulators who must decide whether a company is really committed to safety or is just good at making it look that way — and who are uncertain whether every company in the club deserves to be there. Asked if the agency felt confident that only qualified sites were in VPP, OSHA official Barab said, “We’re looking at that.”

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